CLINTON, Iowa — Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama unveiled a new comprehensive plan for Iraq on Wednesday that features a call to pull out all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2008.
Recognizing that President Bush isn't likely to follow his advice when he speaks to the nation Thursday night, Obama sought to position himself in the hearts and minds of Iowa Democrats as the leading get-out-of-Iraq-fast candidate for the presidential nomination. The speech was also an effort to rebut critiques that he doesn't have the experience or policy gravitas of his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
The junior senator from Illinois unveiled his plan at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa, the state where the first votes to choose party presidential nominees will be cast in four months. End-the-war sentiments are strong among Iowa Democrats.
While national polls show Obama running second — almost 20 points behind Clinton on average — five Iowa polls over the past month put him within 5 points of her there, on average, and within 3 points of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
"I opposed this war from the beginning," he told the crowd of about 600, a reminder that Edwards and Clinton voted in October 2002 to authorize Bush to go to war. Obama said his opposition had been consistent ever since, and that last January he'd proposed removing all U.S. combat troops by March 2008.
His new plan features four key points:
_ Pull out U.S. combat troops immediately at a pace of one to two brigades per month, to be completed by the end of 2008.
_ Organize a new constitutional convention in Iraq through the United Nations, and don't let it adjourn until Iraqi leaders reach an accord on reconciliation. Obama said he wouldn't force Iraq to partition itself into Sunni Muslim Arab, Shiite Muslim and Kurdish regions. "It must be their choice."
_ Step up diplomacy with all nations in the region to forge a new regional security compact.
_ Take immediate steps to relieve the humanitarian disaster in Iraq, including allowing more Iraqi refugees into the U.S.
While the potential appeal of his plan to antiwar Democrats is obvious, the practical impediments to implementing it may be less so.
For starters, Obama isn't president, Bush is, so it won't happen by the end of 2008. Second, military experts say that removing the massive U.S. presence from Iraq that fast may be logistically impossible. Third, Iraq is a sovereign nation and its leaders may object to a would-be American president ordering them to write another constitution. Fourth, seeking a diplomatic security compact doesn't guarantee that regional powers will accept one.
Nevertheless, Rick Barton, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center in Washington, said that many points Obama endorsed were realistic and responsible.
"This could very quickly become the Democratic consensus," Barton said.
Obama drew some of his loudest applause when he suggested that Bush might now be trying to build a case for war with Iran, and said: "You don't have our support and you don't have our authorization for another war."
Obama, 46, also sought to differentiate himself from older Democratic candidates, as well as from Bush, when he said: "Now is not the time to reargue the Vietnam War. I come from a new generation of Americans. I don't want to fight the battles of the 1960s."
Noting that the town where he was speaking shares the same name as his chief rival, Obama joked, "We do hope the headline after we leave is `Clinton endorses Obama.' "
Karen Hood, a local businesswoman who's trying to decide between Clinton and Obama, said she remained concerned about whether Obama had enough experience but that she left more confident than she was before.
"He's got a definite plan to end the war," she said. "He's more specific about what he'd do."
Art Heyderman, a retired federal worker, Vietnam veteran and committed Obama supporter, said he thought that the Illinois senator's speech missed the mark.
"This is a very professorial speech about theoretically `how to end the war if I were the president today.' But if he gets elected, he won't be president until Jan. 21, 2009. How do we get the Republicans and the administration to the table to actually implement a plan that makes sense?"
Obama's plan isn't much different from Edwards', who's called for immediately withdrawing up to 50,000 troops and pulling out all combat troops in about a year. He'd retain U.S. troops in the region to help contain instability and would pursue diplomacy energetically.
Clinton's plan is more measured. She's called for revoking Bush's authority to wage the war, capping U.S. troops in Iraq at Jan. 1 levels and requiring that withdrawal begin within 90 days of that legislation passing. She's also said that, if elected, she'd begin withdrawing troops within two months. She's rejected a complete withdrawal, saying that some American troops must stay in Iraq to train Iraqi forces, fight terrorists and protect U.S. interests.
ON THE WEB
See Obama's Iraq plan in full (.pdf format).