07/29/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Weekend Roundup: Obama, Afghanistan and the Maliki Non-Denial

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s appeared to be doing everything he could do this weekend to give his statements advocating a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal maximum exposure. Just days before Obama’s trip to Iraq, Maliki must have known that the American press would be covering Iraq in greater detail than usual and that the Prime Minister's endorsement of Obama’s plan would work also its way into every article written about Obama’s travel to Afghanistan.

Maliki’s office drew additional press in stating that the Prime Minister's comments had not been reported accurately in Der Spiegel, where they first appeared, but the statement gave no details -- no mention of where the "inaccuracies" occurred, ensuring a second-round of stories about Maliki’s "nondenial" and a second round of reports that Maliki had indeed said what people thought he had said.

It is hard to believe that Maliki did not have some hope of influencing American politics and of directing domestic debate on withdrawal. Maliki is in a uniquely powerful position to influence the positions of Bush, McCain and Obama at a time when all three American politicians have to be especially attentive to public opinion and defend their positions on the U.S. mission in Iraq more specifically than they have in the past.

As the AP explains in a detailed analysis of the situation, Maliki has already succeeded at forcing a shift at the White House -- the Administration now accepting the idea of a “time horizon” -- notice how desperate the White House remains to not use the word “timetable.” In that context, it will get increasingly difficult for McCain to keep up his dire warnings of impending doom if America withdraws from Iraq. Not only will he face Democratic criticism, but his policy is now running contrary to that of the White House and is disrespecting the wishes of an Iraqi government the US is doing its best to legitimize as sovereign.

Aware of this predicament, the McCain campaign found an ally today: Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Speaking on Fox News Sunday, Mullen declared when asked about the consequences of a withdrawal within two years that it could be “very dangerous:” “I’d worry about any kind of rapid movement out and creating instability where we have stability.” Desperate to get any support for its candidate’s position, the McCain campaign was quick to blast Mullen’s comments out in a statement:

Today, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, the nation’s highest ranking officer, made clear that he believes such an approach could be ‘very dangerous.’ Admiral Mullen further added that his view is shared by U.S. commanders in Iraq, who are ‘adamant about continuing progress, about making decisions based on what’s actually happening in the battle space.’ Barack Obama says he wants a ’safe and responsible’ withdrawal from Iraq, but is stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal that places politics above the advice of our military commanders, the success of our troops, and the security of the American people.

Joe Lieberman also rushed to McCain’s rescue, echoing the talking-point the campaign first responded with yesterday, namely that the success of (McCain’s) surge is the only reason we can even talk of withdrawal today. Lieberman declared today,

If Barack Obama’s policy in Iraq had been implemented, he couldn’t be in Iraq today, is because he was prepared to accept retreat and defeat, and that would mean, today, al Qaeda would be in charge of parts of Iraq, Iranian-backed extremists would be in charge of other parts of Iraq. There’d be civil war and, maybe, even genocide.

Again, this is the very argument that is undermined by Maliki’s support for withdrawal. The Iraqi Prime Minister’s stakes are as high if not higher in seeing his own country not fall into utter chaos and civil war, making it difficult for Republicans to argue that the position he has endorsed would do just that. But the McCain campaign is determined to not yield an inch on this issue and launched its surrogates and relied on army commanders to relay that message.

Meanwhile, Obama spent his second day in Afghanistan, where he met with President Hmid Karzai. Given how little Afghanistan is covered in the American media, it is quite a shift to see the increased coverage that the country’s deteriorating condition is receiving while Obama is there. It might seem counter-intuitive that a Democrat is trying to expand the national security debate beyond Iraq and onto the broader war on terror, as the contrary dynamic has been prevalent over the past few years. In 2004 and 2006, voters who said they cared about Iraq tended to vote Democratic, those who said they cared about terrorism tended to vote Republican.

But in 2008, a central part of Obama’s foreign policy argument is that the war on Iraq is spreading American troops thin and is proving a distraction from other vital efforts, including that in Afghanistan. And any increased coverage of that country and of the fact that Bin Laden is still loose is welcome news for Democrats that are frustrated that more has not been made of that over the past few years. Lieberman also sought to address this question today, as he declared: “You can’t choose, as Sen. Obama seems to think, to lose in Iraq so you can win in Afghanistan. The reality is, if we lost in Iraq, which Obama was prepared to do, we — we would go to Afghanistan as losers.”

The problem for the McCain campaign is that Obama’s trip has been perfectly choreographed for now and that, four years after the late October Bin Laden video appeared to help Bush get a last-minute advantage over Kerry, a major outside event has shifted the foreign policy debate in Obama’s direction.