July 15, 2008, Washington, DC – Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama laid the groundwork for a crucial foreign trip Tuesday, vowing to divert the US focus from Iraq to Al-Qaeda lairs in tribal Pakistan and Afghanistan.
As a furious debate raged with his Republican foe John McCain, Obama was to give a major foreign policy speech in Washington and in-depth television interviews to bolster his credentials as potential US commander-in-chief.
Obama is due in Europe and the Middle East next week, and is also expected to embark soon on missions to Afghanistan and Iraq, details of which have not been released for security reasons.
In excerpts from his speech Obama, a long-time opponent of the Iraq war, slammed President George W. Bush, and McCain, who he said had misunderstood the prime challenge to US security.
“As should have been apparent to President Bush and Senator McCain — the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, and it never was,” he said.
“Al-Qaeda has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia,” Obama said in excerpts released by his campaign.
“If another attack on our homeland comes, it will likely come from the same region where 9/11 was planned. And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan.”
“This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize.
“This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century.
A poll Monday underlined why Obama needs to improve his standing on national security issues, and why McCain’s team senses he is vulnerable.
Some 72 percent of the 1,119 adults surveyed by telephone in the July 10-13 ABC News/Washington Post poll said McCain, a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, would be a good commander in chief. Only 48 percent thought the same of Obama.
Both candidates garnered equal support for their Iraq proposals.
“By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe,” Obama said Tuesday.
He pledged to pursue a tough and smart new national security strategy, focusing not just on Baghdad, but on Kandahar and Karachi, Tokyo, London, Beijing and Berlin.
He promised to concentrate on five main goals: “ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
In an opinion piece Monday in the New York Times, Obama pledged to focus on rising violence in Afghanistan with the deployment of two combat brigades, or up to 10,000 troops, while pulling most of US forces out of Iraq in 16 months.
McCain says early troop withdrawals from Iraq would squander the success of last year’s troop surge strategy, and could lead to chaos in the fragile country.
McCain foreign policy aide Randy Scheunemann, a hawk who strongly backed the US-led invasion, contrasted the Arizona senator’s early support for the surge with Obama’s opposition to the plan and vow to bring troops home.
“Senator Obama continues his search for a political position to protect his flank in an election,” Scheunemann told reporters on a conference call.
“Senator McCain said he would rather lose an election than lose a war and see the nation lose a war.
“Senator Obama seems to think losing a war will help him win an election.”
But Obama’s aides questioned McCain’s basic understanding of the war and US strategic interests, saying he would prolong what they called Bush’s failed policies while threats elsewhere gather.
“John McCain has no notion of what’s going on … he doesn’t get the fact that in fact there is no reasonable prospect of there being a strong central government located in Baghdad,” said Democratic Senator Joseph Biden.
And Obama foreign policy aide Susan Rice said the vehemence of the McCain camp’s attacks was designed to obscure “the fact that John McCain has been wrong on Iraq from the very beginning.”
The McCain campaign also said on Monday that the Arizona senator would make a speech on Afghan war policy later this week.