Tags: obama | in | middle | east

Obama Flipping and Floundering in Middle East

Thursday, 24 Jul 2008 02:20 PM

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

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For latest details about the Air Force captain's e-mail below, please read "Did Obama Blow Off Troops at Bagram?"

Everything seemed planned for the future campaign commercials — at least, that’s how it seemed to a U.S. Air Force captain when Sen. Barack Obama and his entourage swooped into Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan for an hour-long visit last Saturday at the start of a week-long foreign tour.

“He got off the plane and got into a bullet proof vehicle” without pausing to acknowledge the U.S. troops who had been waiting all day just for the opportunity to meet him, the officer told the Blackfive pro-military blog.

As the soldiers lined up to shake his hand, the Illinois senator “blew them off and didn’t say a word,” ducking into the conference room to meet the general.

Then the armored vehicles took him to where “he could take his publicity pictures playing basketball. He again shunned the opportunity to talk to soldiers to thank them for their service,” the captain wrote.

“As you know, I am not a very political person. I just wanted to share with you what happened” during Obama’s visit, the captain related.

“I swear, we got more thanks from the NBA basketball players or the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders than from Senator Obama,” he added.

The Illinois senator used his first-ever trip to Afghanistan to drive home his campaign message that the Bush administration — and by inference, his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain — have squandered resources in Iraq while ignoring the “central front” in the war on terror, which Obama insists is Afghanistan.

Traveling onward to Iraq, Obama met with U.S. commanders and with Iraqi leaders, who briefed him on the dramatic progress in decreasing violence that has been made since the U.S. troop surge began last year.

And yet, Obama told ABC News that he still would not have supported the surge, even knowing how things worked out.

“Hypotheticals are always difficult,” he said. “Hindsight is 20-20.”

Although U.S. casualties in Iraq dropped from 76 for the month of July 2007 to just five so far for July 2008, the Illinois senator said that President Bush’s policy was “just something I disagreed with.”

Of course, should he become president, Obama will be faced with similar situations where he will be required to make difficult decisions based on the “hypotheticals” of uncertain intelligence, inferences, and murky political forecasts of cause and effect.

CBS News anchor Katie Couric uncharacteristically grilled Obama on his unwillingness to acknowledge that the surge had been a success in a separate interview on Tuesday taped while Obama was in Jordan.

“You raised a lot of eyebrows on this trip saying even knowing what you know now, you still would not have supported the surge. People may be scratching their heads and saying why,” she said.

When Obama tried to avoid a direct answer, Couric came back to the charge repeatedly, asking him if the additional troops had helped to reduce the violence.

“Katie, as you’ve asked me three different times, and I have said repeatedly that there is no doubt that our troops helped reduce violence [in iraq]. There’s no doubt.”

Despite this, he said he continued to oppose the surge, prompting Couric to ask him again if the current reduced level of violence could have occurred without the troop increase ordered by Bush and supported by McCain.

“Katie, I have no idea what would have happened had we applied my approach, which was to put more pressure on the Iraqis to arrive at a political reconciliation,” Obama said. “So this is all hypotheticals.”

It was the type of comment that has allowed the McCain adviser Kori Schake to accuse Obama of “not understanding the consequences of his policy choices.”

In opposing the surge in January 2007, Obama stated that it would not “make a significant dent in the sectarian violence that’s taking place” in Iraq, and that it would “not prove to be the one [strategy] that changes the dynamics significantly.”

Of course, events have proved just the opposite. As the Washington Times pointed out recently in an editorial, if Obama’s initial policy of withdrawing all U.S. troops by March 2008 had been put into action, it “would have meant leaving the mission incomplete and leaving Iraq in defeat.”

Moving on to a carefully choreographed trip to Israel — only the second time he has ever visited the Jewish state — Obama immediately pledged that if elected he would tackle the issue of Middle East peace negotiations “right away.”

That elicited skepticism even from the traveling press corps, which for the most part has fawned over Obama from the start. “What fresh strategies would you bring?” he was asked.

In the world of marketing, Obama’s response would have been called a repackaging job. “A U.S. administration has to put its weight behind a process,” he said, “recognizing that it’s not going to happen immediately.”

The United States has been pushing a peace “process” between Arabs and Israelis since the administration of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

During that time, Israel has been forced to fight two wars in Lebanon, put down two Palestinian uprisings, endure Iraqi missile strikes and waves of suicide bombers, and most recently suffer two thousand rocket attacks from neighboring Gaza.

Obama said his role in the “process” would not be “to dictate to either of the parties what this deal should be, but hopefully to be able to facilitate and promote a meaningful, realistic, pragmatic, concrete strategy.”

That prompted Hishem Melhem, the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Al Arabiya satellite television network to politely scoff. “To begin with, the next American president will be forced, regardless of his intentions, to be focusing on the old so-called arc of crisis: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. If he’s going to focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he’s going to find an arid landscape.”

Yesterday, Obama sparred with reporters during a brief press conference in the Israeli town of Sderot, which has born the brunt of Palestinian rocket attacks over the past two years, over his offer to hold unconditional talks with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“A year ago, you said you would meet in your first year as president” with Ahmadinejad and other leaders of rogue nations, “Is there anything you’ve heard today in your discussions with Israeli leaders to make you rethink that pledge, or are you standing by that?” a reporter asked.

The reporter was referring to a moment in the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C., on July 23, 2007, when Obama was asked if he would be ”willing to meet separately, without pre-condition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divies our countries.”

At the time, Obama answered, “I would.”

On Wednesday, however, he attempted to shift ground. “I think you have to look at what the question was in South Carolina and how I responded . . . I think that what I said in response was that I would, at my time and choosing, be willing to meet with any leader if I thought it would promote the national security interests of the United States of America. And, Dan, that continues to be my position.”

In a hastily-organized conference call with reporters just one hour after Obama made those remarks, McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann accused Obama of “trying to rewrite history . . . I guess for Senator Obama, words matter — except when they pose an inconvenient truth.”

Sen. Obama’s goal throughout this rare overseas visit has been to generate the impression of foreign policy experience, and to win the confidence of American Jewish voters, who so far have responded lukewarmly to his candidacy.

A recent Gallup Poll shows that fully one-third of Jewish voters favor McCain, a dramatic increase in Republican support from previous elections. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry won 74 percent of the Jewish vote. In 2000, Al Gore won 79 percent.

While Jews make up just 3 percent of the U.S. electorate, campaign strategists in both camps believe that their vote could determine the outcome in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and possibly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well.

In June, Obama made what appeared to be a firm pledge to support Jerusalem remaining the “undivided” capital of Israel in a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs committee (AIPAC).

Those comments won him a standing ovation from some 6,000 people in the Washington, D.C., convention center.

But just days later, Obama said he needed to “correct” that statement, that had been “poorly worded” by speech writers. Yesterday, he told reporters that the fate of Jerusalem was “a final status issue,” meaning that in fact it could be divided by mutual accord.

After the Obama press conference, McCain told reporters traveling with his campaign that it was hard to say how his administration would differ from an Obama administration on Israel.

"I don't know because I never know exactly what his position is," McCain said, citing Obama's Jerusalem comments. "I know the issues. I've been there time and time again."

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