Sun, Nov 02, 2008 - Page 9 News List

McCain and Obama need a dose of reality

The next president’s maneuvering on Iraq and Afghanistan will be limited by a vast array of complicated unknowns

By Steven R. Hurst  /  AP , WASHINGTON

The positions of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain on Iraq and Afghanistan probably will not stand the test of reality on crucial foreign policy issues that promise to tangle and vastly complicate the next president’s job, no matter who wins.

Obama says the Iraq War was a blunder from the outset and must be ended quickly, within 16 months of taking office, to free US forces for an intensified fight against the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. McCain backed the Iraq War at its inception and wants to keep US forces there in pursuit of victory, although what that entails is ill-defined.

Both candidates say more troops are needed in Afghanistan, where violence has increased dramatically. Obama says he would send an additional force of 7,000. McCain does not say how many troops should be added.

The next president’s maneuvering room, however, will be limited by a vast array of complicated unknowns. Chief among them is stiff opposition in Iraq’s parliament to a draft agreement between Washington and the Baghdad government that specifies that US troops leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, unless the government asks them to stay.

The agreement, now seen as unlikely to pass Iraq’s parliament by year’s end, is designed to replace the UN resolution under which US forces invaded Iraq and are allowed to be in the country.

The bilateral pact became necessary after Iraq said it would no longer seek annual renewal of the UN resolution for next year.

US Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he has told Iraqis that US forces will pull back to bases on Jan. 1 if the agreement is not approved by the year-end deadline.

The administration of US President George W. Bush has warned of “real consequences” if Americans are not able to operate there.

“There will be no legal basis for us to continue operating there without that,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said. “And the Iraqis know that. And so, we’re confident that they’ll be able to recognize this.”

McCain, for his part, insists that the so-called Status of Forces agreement is condition-based, his term for gauging whether US forces can be drawn down.

But when asked directly if he would honor the agreement, McCain said: “I’ve always said we could be out based on conditions, and honor and victory, and not defeat.”

What precisely the conditions would be are not clear and there’s plenty of wiggle room in such a response.

For Obama, the agreement, if it goes into force, comes closer to what he has been proposing all along. His 16-month deadline for pulling out US troops would expire in May of 2010. But that still is more than a year and a half before what is called for in the pending US-Iraqi agreement. He also wants to leave in place a US presence of unspecified size that would continue with training Iraqi forces, protecting US diplomats and other interests and standing by as a rapid-response force in case of a significant resurgence of violence. That position leaves him room for maneuver as well.

Early on, the Iraq War, and the Afghan conflict to a lesser degree, promised to dominate the US election, forcing both Obama and McCain to set out hard positions on what was then seen as the defining issue in their White House contest.

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