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.
Well, you get the picture. It is one of a woefully inexperienced politician who can't seem to make up his mind about what to do in a war that he said we were losing and that we are now winning. So he shifts day-to-day from one strategy to another, sending disturbing signals that he is in over his head and doesn't know what to do next.
McCain, who has led military forces, knows that in a time of war you cannot keep switching signals in the middle of the game. "We welcome this latest shift in Sen. Obama's position, but it is obvious that it was only a lack of experience and judgment that kept him from arriving at this position sooner," said Bound, the Arizona senator's spokesman, as Obama was flying home.
Thus, in the aftermath of his tutorial trip, doubts are growing about his judgment, and the news media is turning on him far more aggressively, questioning and ridiculing some of his stock answers on the war on terrorism. "Mr. Obama's account of his strategic vision remains eccentric," the liberal Washington Post editorialized last week.
He has repeatedly played down Iraq and said that Afghanistan is "the central front" where we had to focus our forces. "But there are no known al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan ... While the United States has an interest in preventing the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, the country's strategic importance pales beside that of Iraq, which lies at the geopolitical center of the Middle East and contains some of the world's largest oil reserves," the Post said.
The national news media gave boffo reviews to Obama's performance overseas, but America's voters seemed to be paying far more attention to what he said than the way he said it, or the size of the crowds who turned out to see and hear him.
Wary of Obama's chameleonlike positions and his willingness to say whatever pleases his audience, voters may be thinking he has changed his positions one too many times. Was this what he meant by change you can believe in?
Meanwhile, back home, the cash-rich Obama campaign was running nonstop TV ads in the key battleground states, hoping to move his polling numbers upward. But McCain strategists told me that their polls showed that his numbers hadn't budged in his target states. Indeed, Obama's poll numbers had slipped in four of them, according to a Quinnipiac survey of likely voters.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll said Monday that McCain had inched ahead of Obama by 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent among likely voters. Instead of strengthening his foreign-policy credentials with his Middle East road show, Obama has deepened doubts in the minds of voters about his maturity and judgment.
The emerging choice in this election seems to be perseverance, resolve and steadiness on the one hand, and bait-and-switch on the other.