AMMAN, Jordan — When Sen. Barack Obama left Washington last week, he was under pressure to defend what Republican critics called an arbitrary deadline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq. By Monday, the White House and rival Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign were at pains to explain why the Iraqi prime minister had seemingly all but endorsed Obama's time line for getting out.
Obama has certainly not won the argument over Iraq policy. Far from it. His proposal to withdraw U.S. combat forces over 16 months still faces serious questions, including from some of the commanders who might be asked to implement it.
But the turn of events made for an unexpected opening act for the Democrat's weeklong tour of seven countries, demonstrating anew the combination of agility and good fortune that has marked his campaign.
Whether Obama can count on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the days ahead is another matter. The Iraqi government does not speak with one voice, and it is not yet clear how current negotiations with the administration will conclude and how much emphasis will be placed on making a withdrawal timetable or "time horizon" conditions-based.
Beyond that, Obama's opposition to the troop "surge" that has helped quell violence and U.S. casualties — and that McCain vociferously supported — leaves room for further questions about his judgment. McCain's advisers were quick to suggest Monday that it was only because of the success of the increase that Obama can project the drawdown of troops.
But as political theater, the events of the past few days have played in the Democrat's favor. On Friday, a day after Obama left for Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush administration officials announced that the United States and Iraq had agreed on a time horizon for removing troops. Then, twice in three days, Maliki embraced a withdrawal time line similar to Obama's. Beyond that, McCain shifted ground to declare that he, too, favors sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
McCain was blistering in his criticism of Obama on Monday, arguing that any withdrawal from Iraq must be based on conditions on the ground.
The Republican's campaign advisers noted that their candidate has also embraced a withdrawal timetable for Iraq. In a recent speech, he said his goal would be to remove all U.S. combat forces by the end of his first term as president. But McCain said that could happen only if Iraq is secure and stable. Obama, he said, has gotten it backward — calling for a timetable first, with no real regard for conditions on the ground.
On Monday, after Maliki met with Obama, his spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Iraqis were working toward a deadline that would call for U.S. combat forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2010, at most eight months after Obama's timetable. He also said the timetable was not discussed when Maliki met with Obama and Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., who are accompanying the senator from Illinois.
If there was a strategic goal for Obama's trip to Afghanistan and Iraq, it was to broaden the debate from focusing largely on his proposal to withdraw combat forces from Iraq over a 16-month period to the question of whether the conflict in Iraq has sapped the United States' ability to combat the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
McCain and Obama agree that more troops are needed in Afghanistan, but they remain far apart on how the war in Iraq fits into this equation, just as they remain at odds over the terms of ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.
That debate will continue to play out between now and November with more turbulence ahead, resulting from the twists and turns of the past three days.