Sunday, January 14, 2007

Obama, McCain square off on war

By Mark Silva for the Chicago Tribune:

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who supports President Bush's new deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq, and Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat who is calling for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, faced the first of a likely long series of counterpoints over the war today in back-to-back interviews on CBS' Face the Nation. It wasn't a debate so much as a laying down of markers.

Obama and McCain, eyeing campaigns for their parties' presidential nominations, were introduced by CBS News' Bob Schieffer as "two possible presidential contenders in 2008.'' Schieffer told them: "My guess is, gentlemen, this is not the last time the two of you will come together to talk about this subject.''

Obama, reluctant to commit himself to any vote blocking spending for the war, is joining Democratic leaders in calling for the start of a phased withdrawal starting over the next four to six month and calls Bush's new plan "stay-the-course-plus.'' McCain, warning that a withdrawal of U.S. forces will lead to "catastrophe'' in Iraq, also acknowledges that he cannot "guarantee success'' with the president's plan.

The president, whom CBS News will feature this evening in an interview aired on 60 Minutes, vows to carry out the deployment regardless of congressional criticism for it. "I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it,'' Bush tells 60 Minutes. "But I've made my decision and we're going forward.''

"I think the case still needs to be made,'' McCain said this morning, calling the debate so far "superficial." "This is about a new strategy, of which an increase in troop strength is an integral part.''

The deployment of 21,500 additional troops is part of a new plan to secure Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, McCain said. "We will go in and we will clear and hold and build,'' he said. "As most people know, we have gone in and cleared and left and the insurgents have returned… Do I believe it can succeed? Yes, I do.''

Asked about critics labeling the ''surge'' in troops as the McCain Doctrine, in a bid to tag the leading Republican contender for the '08 presidential nomination with the war, the senator said: "I think maybe I could call it McCain principle – that when I vote to send young men and women into harm's way… I am committed to seeing it through.''

Asked about a looming non-binding vote in the Senate against the president's war plan, McCain said: "If these people are serious… then they should vote to cut off… funding…. Emotional disapproval, I view as purely a political ploy to do further political damage to the president of the United States…

"The American people deserve this debate… I think we can make our case in this debate,'' McCain said. "The opponents of doing this are obligated, in my view, to tell the American people what the option is if we do leave… What is the option? It's catastrophe.''

"The bloodletting will increase, which means to me that we will back in there, only under far more difficult circumstances at some point,'' he said. "If we withdraw, we have to explain to the American people the consequences.''

McCain offered little support, however, for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Bush administration is counting upon to gain control of the situation: "He's been a slender reed,'' McCain said.

Asked if Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) was "out of line'' this week in telling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that she cannot understand the burden the war is placing on military families because she is single, McCain said: "I don't think that's helpful in the debate… I believe in the patriotism and dedication to this nation of everyone I work with in Congress…

"We should have a respectful debate in this Congress and in this country,'' McCain said. "I respect the views of Senator Obama. "But I do believe that a full debate will expose the consequences of failure here.''

Obama, who followed McCain in the Face The Nation interviews this morning, suggested that the debate is not a question of deploying new troops or withdrawing troops today.

"First of all… Sen. McCain has been consistent,'' Obama said "One of the things I strongly disagree with… this notion that we have future catastrophe to look forward to if we phase down troops… We are in the catastrophe that Sen. McCain talked about now.

"Those of us who object to what I consider to be a disastrous policy on the part of President Bush have put forward a different approach,'' Obama said. "If we initiate a phased withdrawal, that provides us leverage to make sure the Iraqis are doing what needs to be done to arrive at a political solution.''

But Obama, stressing the importance of supporting the troops already in Iraq, proved reluctant to commit to a vote on blocking funding for Bush's plan.

"I think this thing is going to proceed in steps,'' he said of the non-binding resolution opposing the president's plan. "I think the resolution is going to go forward… That will send a message that there is great skepticism in Congress and among the American people for this plan.''

In the meantime, Obama said, striking a tone that Democrats have been careful to voice in this debate: "We need to make sure that the troops on the ground have all the equipment and resources necessary…. We unfortunately are not going to be voting on funding for several weeks, or perhaps several months… Funding is coming to come through the 'supplemental' (budget)… and the president hasn't presented that.''

Asked about Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy's proposed legislation to block spending for the president's new deployment, Obama said: "All of us are concerned'' that whatever resolutions are out there "do not potentially strand whatever troops are out there… If there are ways that we can constrain and condition what the president is doing, so that four to six months from now we are considering a phased withdrawal… that is the area that I am most interested in supporting.

"There is bipartisan skepticism, not partisan skepticism, to this plan,'' Obama said, calling for a timetable "to start putting the onus on the Iraqis… That is going to be Shi'a and Sunni sitting down together and saying that we want to come together as a single country.''

Asked about any withdrawal of U.S. forces showing that the U.S. does not have "the stomach for the fight,'' as Vice President Dick Cheney has warned, Obama said: "The vice president has pursued this wrong-headed approach throughout the process.

"The specific proposal that I have put forward, which is echoed in the Iraq Study Group, does not call for an immediate and total withdrawal,'' he said. "What we have suggested is that we begin a phased pullout.''

. "If we begin a well-structured, phased redeployment, in concert with a surge of diplomacy in the region…. there are risks involved in that approach, but there are certainly no more risks than the approach that is being advanced by the administration and Sen. McCain,'' Obama said. "The options are not either total withdrawal or a stay-the-course-plus, which is what the administration is proposing.''

Asked about his own plans for a presidential campaign, Obama reiterated what he has been saying for weeks: "I will have something to say about that fairly soon, Bob… It's something that I've been considering… and will be making an announcement fairly soon… It will be pretty soon.''

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