(I see that publius just posted on this, but since mine is slightly different...)
"I continue to believe that it is a strategic error for us to maintain a long-term occupation in Iraq at a time when the conditions in Afghanistan are worsening, Al Qaeda has been able to establish bases in the areas of northwest Pakistan, resources there are severely strained, and we're spending $10 to $12 billion a month in Iraq that we desperately need here at home, not to mention the strains on our military.
So my position has not changed, but keep in mind what that original position was. I've always said that I would listen to commanders on the ground. I've always said the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed. And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies."
I have a hard time seeing what the big deal is here.
This is what Obama has always said. As Steve Benen reminds us:
"As the Democratic primary process unfolded, the Clinton campaign tried to get out in front of this issue by saying that she was committed to her withdrawal plan — no matter what. When Clinton’s communications director was pressed on whether Clinton would proceed with a withdrawal regardless of conditions on the ground, he said, “Yes.”
Obama was never actually willing to go there, and as far as I can tell, has always given himself some flexibility on troop withdrawal."
During the primary, agreeing with Clinton would have been the popular thing to do. Obama did not do it. And he was right not to. Preserving some flexibility to respond to unforeseen circumstances is almost always the right thing to do, and this is especially true when you're talking about your policy for something like Iraq. Just to state the obvious:
Obama is saying what he will do if he is elected. He won't be able to do any of it until he takes office, nearly seven months from now (if he wins.) The situation in Iraq can change quickly and unpredictably. Moreover, in the nature of things, there is information about the situation there that he will only have access to once he takes office. For Obama to say that he knows for sure, right now, exactly what he will do, in every detail, and that neither the advice he receives from the commanders on the ground nor anything that happens in the intervening months could possibly change his mind, would be idiotic. Politically expedient, perhaps, but idiotic nonetheless.
Saying that he will be open to advice and new information, however, is not the same as saying that his fundamental views on Iraq are open to change, absent some genuinely unpredicted and catastrophic development. It's one thing to be open to a somewhat different pace for troop withdrawal, and another thing altogether to change your mind about the wisdom of getting out of Iraq in the first place. But I honestly don't see where Obama got near saying he was open to changing his mind on that score, even before he held the second press conference, at which he explicitly denied this. As Greg Sargent said about Obama's initial remarks:
"These strike me as less a signal of a coming change in his position on withdrawal and more like a combined effort to defuse the charge that he'll withdraw recklessly and to preserve flexibility as commander in chief."
This brings me to a somewhat more important point. I take it for granted that the media will screw this sort of thing up -- scrutinizing all candidates not named "John McCain" for alleged inconsistencies is what they do, and in this case they've been primed by a lot of GOP press releases. But what about us? Why are we so ready to believe this sort of thing?
I put it down to eight years of George W. Bush. It's obvious that Bush would have had to be dragged kicking and screaming away from Iraq. That's why, even though I think that in general timetables for withdrawal are a bad idea (why telegraph your movements in advance?), I supported attempts to impose them on Bush. A normal President might have been swayed either by the damage to Iraq, our national interests, our military, our budget, etc., and left. Failing that, he might have obeyed clear Congressional instructions to leave, or at least be the sort of person who could be counted on not to respond to a cutoff of funding by, say, leaving the troops in Iraq without food or bullets in order to be able to blame the Democrats. But Bush is not a normal President. The only thing that could possibly get him out of Iraq is a timetable with the force of law, and even that might not have worked.
But most people are not like that. And that's a very good thing: the range of policies that you can adopt when you have even the most minimal trust in the person who will execute them is much larger than the range you can use when that person is Bush. In particular, even though it's often a very good thing to give some flexibility to the people who execute policies, we can't afford to give Bush any flexibility at all, since experience shows that he will abuse it. That's a real sacrifice.
I suspect that after seven long years of Bush, some of us are reacting to all politicians as though we couldn't trust them any more than we can trust him. And I think this is a mistake. I'm not saying that we should trust them blindly and completely -- "trusting someone more than I trust Bush" covers a whole lot of territory, at least for me. What I do mean is something like: thinking that someone who has made withdrawal from Iraq a central part of his campaign probably intends to withdraw from Iraq, and thinking that when he says that he plans to refine his plans on talking to commanders on the ground, it's not obvious that that means reconsidering the entire idea of withdrawal.
This matters. Our failure to give our candidates this much space is, I think, the only reason why the claim that you will withdraw in 16 months (or whatever), no matter what, seems to anyone like a good thing for a candidate to say. If you don't trust candidates even to a limited extent, you might think that anything else is a sign that that candidate is about to give up on withdrawal altogether. (Although, in that case, it would be worth asking why you pay any attention at all to what they say. There's a reason I almost never blog about what Bush says: I just don't think it's worth paying attention to his words.) But if you do trust a candidate to the limited extent required to think that he takes one of his central commitments seriously, and if one of those central commitments is withdrawing from Iraq, then you might think: well, of course what happens on the ground could affect the precise timing of that withdrawal, and of course it would be better to fine-tune your plans to reflect what's happening in Iraq than not to. That would just be obvious, the way it would be obvious that your surgeon ought to be able to adjust his plans once he opens you up.
Obama is not Bush. He's not even Harry Reid. I'm no happier with his FISA cave than anyone else, but nothing I've seen makes me think that he's waffling on withdrawal from Iraq, as opposed to preserving some flexibility in a way that makes perfect sense. McCain is trying to argue that if he doesn't pay attention to facts on the ground, he's rigid and inflexible (true), but if he does, he's a flip-flopper (false). There's no earthly reason why we should accept this.
Note to Captain Ed: there is no contradiction between saying you'll take facts on the ground into consideration and Claire McCaskill's claim that Obama will not "change course". At least not if you read McCaskill's statement in its entirety: it's clear that she's saying he won't change course on withdrawal, not that he won't alter his plans in any respect based on what happens in Iraq. I can't remember what conservative blogger it was who seemed to think that there was a contradiction between (a) saying that you'll listen to your military commanders and (b) saying that you will make the final decision about policy, but there's no contradiction there either.