There is no candidate arguing for the permanent stationing of more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. There are those who believe that political ends can and should be achieved in Iraq, and that the drawdown of forces should be keyed to achieving those ends. That is essentially the Bush policy. Then there are those who believe that the United States not only has failed to achieve its political goals but also, in fact, is not going to achieve them. Under this reasoning, the United States ought to be prepared to withdraw from Iraq on a timetable that is indifferent to the situation on the ground.
This has been Obama’s position to this point, and it distinguishes him from other candidates — including Clinton, who has been much less clear on what her policy going forward would be. But even Obama’s emphasis, if not his outright position, has shifted as a political resolution in Iraq has appeared more achievable. He remains committed to a withdrawal from Iraq, but he is not clear on the timeline. He calls for having all U.S. combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months, but qualifies his statement by saying that if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes against the group. Since al Qaeda is in fact building a base within Iraq, Obama’s commitment to having troops in Iraq is open-ended.
The shift in Obama’s emphasis — and this is the important point — means his position on Iraq is not really different from that of McCain, the most pro-Bush candidate. Events have bypassed the stance that the situation on the ground is hopeless, so even Obama’s position has tacked toward a phased withdrawal based on political evolutions.