Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama, who went to Iraq in search of foreign-policy experience, came home last week sounding a bit more like John McCain.

After being told by a key tribal leader in Ramadi that "you have to keep Marines in our province because we still have problems," the freshman senator said he would leave a large U.S. military force in Iraq but that its size would be "entirely conditions-based."

McCain, happy as a schoolteacher whose remedial student suddenly seemed to be learning his lessons, couldn't have put it any better himself. "Barack Obama is ultimately articulating a position of sustained troop levels in Iraq based on the conditions on the ground and the security of the country. That is the very same position that John McCain has long held," said McCain representative Tucker Bounds.

The neophyte Senate lawmaker, still learning the ropes about war and national security, wouldn't say how large a force he would leave behind (though a chief adviser has proposed a residual army of between 60,000 to 80,000 American soldiers and personnel). But in a series of interviews with news organizations, Obama has spelled out the need for a sizable "counterterrorism strike force" and military troops to train the Iraqi army and police forces "to make them more effective."

How long are these U.S. troops going to be there? Well, Obama said, the Iraqis are "going to need our help for some time to come."

McCain and even some of Obama's top foreign-policy advisers have said it is ridiculous to be talking about the precise timing (within 16 months) and size of U.S. troop withdrawals because no one can foresee what the conditions will be on the ground next year, or the year after that.

Now it seems the man who won the Democratic presidential primaries by promising to end the war and bring the troops home is having some second, third and fourth thoughts about that.

"I do think that's entirely conditions-based," he told Newsweek. "It's hard to anticipate where we may be six months from now, or a year from now, or a year and a half from now."

It was the latest shift in Obama's continually shifting war policy on Iraq. First, he was going to pull all our forces out, then it was just combat forces, then it was most combat forces, with a residual force left behind. Now he is talking about a sizable strike force to deal with al-Qaeda terrorists, plus other U.S. forces for logistical support, intelligence activities, training and reconstruction -- all of whom are going to be there, he said, for a very long time.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.