Since clinching the nomination, Obama has been cautiously executing a Nixonian post-primary pivot toward the center. He weathered outrage by his "net-roots" bloggers over his vote for the national security wiretapping bill. But hedging on Iraq was vastly more dangerous, particularly when it appeared he was modifying his famous pledge to remove U.S. troops within 16 months after becoming president.
So, in his pre-trip speech last Tuesday, he reaffirmed the 16-month deadline (though in less robust style than on the primary election circuit): "We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months." But he added, cryptically, "We'll keep a residual force" for "targeting any remnants of al-Qaida," "protecting" remaining U.S. troops and officials, and training Iraqi security forces provided they "make political progress."
How big would this more or less permanent "residual" force be? Obama did not say, but advisers leaked it could reach 50,000. That would be far too much for the candidate's net-roots to swallow, but a token force of around 2,000 would be ludicrous. Obama will face a test of how he handles this after he meets in Iraq with the esteemed Gen. David Petraeus.
Obama's speech continued his campaign's theme of depicting a McCain administration as Bush's third term, in this instance continuing present Iraq policy. But the spotlight of scrutiny will be on Obama, not McCain, because of his decision to visit Iraq, and therein lies McCain's hope for victory.
In the last column, I misidentified James Johnson as having been at ZymoGenetics Inc. That is a different James Johnson. It correctly identified Johnson as heading the compensation committee at Goldman Sachs, which was the point of the column.