Maliki’s Gift to Obama

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave John McCain a headache last week when he publicly announced his desire for American troop withdrawals. The Bush administration then turned the screws yesterday by agreeing to a “general time horizon” for withdrawal. (Not a time table , mind you.) And now Maliki, as if to twist the knife a full 360 degrees, has praised Barack Obama’s plan for withdrawal in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel . Here’s the transcript :

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans’ business. But it’s the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that’s where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.

The timing for Obama couldn’t be better. He lands in Kabul today and heads to Baghdad soon after. He’s getting mixed messages, certainly, from different leaders on the ground, many of whom are skeptical of his timetable for withdrawal. And keep in mind Maliki’s political interest—his sudden excitement about withdrawal makes it clear to critics he’s not in Bush’s pocket. But his statement, however political, is also symbolic. In the United States, people talk in broad strokes about what “the Iraqis” want, as if their opinion were uniform. From that perspective, Maliki’s words carry weight.

McCain’s in a tough spot here: He’s said in the past that we should leave Iraq if asked. ” I don’t see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people ,” he said in 2004. But he has since backed off that stance. After Maliki’s comment last week, McCain didn’t criticize the PM but took the opportunity to reiterate his stance that troop levels should be determined by conditions on the ground.

Neither campaign has commented on the statement yet. Better to ride out the free media, no doubt. But Drudge has yet to pick it up. Maybe a little nudge is in order.