The Refiner

If you flip-flop on an issue that itself flip-flops all the time, is that considered flip-flopping?

That’s the question confronting Barack Obama, who hinted Thursday that he might “refine” his position on withdrawal from Iraq. Obama quickly held a follow-up presser to clarify his determination to pull out as quickly and safely as possible. But Obama’s mistake wasn’t suggesting that his position was subject to change. It was suggesting all along—and letting his opponents suggest—that his 16-month withdrawal timetable was anything more than a goal.

For some reason, the words goal , contingency , and facts on the ground are seen as code for wavering. As such, they rarely made it into Obama’s description of his plan for withdrawal. The RNC giddily rounds up the various instances when Obama articulated his timeline for withdrawal without strong caveats. Perhaps the most explicit moment was Obama’s exchange with Charlie Gibson at the CBS debate on April 16 :

MR. GIBSON: And Senator Obama, your campaign manager, David Plouffe, said, when he is—this is talking about you—when he is elected president, we will be out of Iraq in 16 months at the most; there should be no confusion about that. So you’d give the same rock-hard pledge, that no matter what the military commanders said, you would give the order: Bring them home.

SENATOR OBAMA: Because the commander in chief sets the mission, Charlie. That’s not the role of the generals. … Now, I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics. Once I’ve given them a new mission, that we are going to proceed deliberately in an orderly fashion out of Iraq and we are going to have our combat troops out, we will not have permanent bases there, once I’ve provided that mission, if they come to me and want to adjust tactics, then I will certainly take their recommendations into consideration; but ultimately the buck stops with me as the commander in chief. [E.A]

Gibson’s demand for a “rock-hard pledge” may have been the epitome of gotcha journalism, but Obama fell for it. He could have said, “No, Charlie, it’s not a rock-hard pledge—it’s a goal that’s subject to adjustment based on new facts on the ground.” But that, according to perverse campaign logic, would have been a sign of weakness.  

That’s why it was a scandal when Obama foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power suggested that his 16-month plan was a “best-case scenario.” But her words made perfect sense: “You can’t make a commitment in March of 2008 about what circumstances are going to be like in January 2009. He will, of course, not rely upon some plan that he has crafted as a presidential candidate or a US senator. He will rely upon an operational plan that he pulls together in consultation with people on the ground.” That’s how strategy works—you adjust your plan according to the circumstances. But somehow Power’s admission became a “gaffe.” If she hadn’t resigned from the campaign for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster,” this remark might have pushed her out instead.

It’s a common problem when politics and war intersect: Promises only hold if the facts on which the promise was based hold as well. Particularly in Iraq, where a relative lull in violence can be instantly upset , as it was this weekend. One can argue that Obama’s withdrawal plan has been overly ambitious all along , and that his attempt to “refine” his position reflects problems inherent to his plan as much as shifting facts. But to stick with a rigid plan when the underlying facts are changing isn’t consistent. It’s irresponsible.