Local Politics

Obama Shifts Campaign to Iraq

Posted March 19, 2008 5:20 a.m. EDT
Updated March 20, 2008 12:29 a.m. EDT

— Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War by pledging Wednesday to end the conflict if elected.

"Fighting a war without end will not make the American people safer," Obama told an audience of veterans, military family members and local officials at Fayetteville Technical Community College. "When I am commander-in-chief, I will set a new goal on Day One: I will end this war ... because it is the right thing to do for our national security and it will ultimately make us safer."

The U.S. senator from Illinois contrasted himself with U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, his main rival for the Democratic nomination, and U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee. Clinton and McCain voted to support President George W. Bush's call to go to war in 2003, while Obama said he has consistently opposed the war. He was not in the Senate at the time.

"Since before this war in Iraq began, I have made different judgments. I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past," he said.

Clinton's campaign fired back that she has been more steadfast in her opposition to the Iraq War than Obama has been.

"The reality is that Sen. Obama took practically no action to end the war until he started his White House run while Sen. Clinton has been a consistent critic of Iraq for many years," Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement.

Obama said Bush's decision to wage war was based on ideology and too many members of Congress backed him because public opinion at the time favored going to war.

"The lesson of Iraq is that, when we are making decisions about matters as grave as war, we need a policy rooted in reason and facts, not ideology and politics," he said.

Obama proposed pulling one or two combat brigades from Iraq each month, making a complete withdrawal – enough troops would remain to guard the U.S. embassy and to provide a counter-terrorism strike force – possible within 16 months.

Leaving Iraq won't make U.S. enemies bolder in the future, he predicted, saying the war itself "has done more to embolden America's enemies than any strategic choice we've made in decades." He cited growing threats from Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan.

The move also will place more pressure on Iraqi leaders to take control of their country, he said.

"When we say, 'We'll stay as long as it takes,' Iraqi leaders take as long as they want," he said. "Iraqis must take responsibility for their country."

Obama outlined a five-point plan to shift American strategy from Iraq to other national security threats:

  • Establishing a comprehensive counter-terrorism effort that includes security partnerships and improved intelligence
  • Ending nuclear proliferation and securing loose nuclear materials
  • Cutting global poverty in half through increased foreign aid and accountability
  • Assuming a leading role in the fight against climate change to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil
  • Investing in education to maintain U.S. economic strength

He said more troops should be deployed in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight al-Quaeda.

"We've taken our eye off the ball when it comes to al-Quaeda," he told WRAL in an exclusive interview after his speech. "We've got to go after those who pose the greatest threat to America."

U.S. foreign policy also requires "tough, disciplined diplomacy" that should always be the first course of action, he said.

"We cannot seize opportunities to fix our problems unless we create (opportunities)," he said.

James Pilgrim, a veteran who attended the speech, said he wasn't bothered by the fact that Obama doesn't have a military background.

"I think that's probably most of the problem in Washington now. We've got too many old people in Washington that have been there forever," Pilgrim said.

The veterans and military relatives in attendance gave Obama the loudest ovation when he called for adding 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines to U.S. forces to provide more time to train and longer stretches at home between deployments.

"Our troops have accomplished great things, and they've performed magnificently," he told WRAL. "But it's time for us to make sure that our missions are set in such a way that it enhances our national security and is good for our military over the long term."

Obama also held a town-hall-style meeting at the Grady Cole Center in Charlotte Wednesday afternoon.