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Analysts Consider Obama on Iraq, Legacy of Jesse Helms

Columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru debate the potential impact of presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama's statements on Iraq and other news, including the death of former senator Jesse Helms.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. David Brooks is away.

    We want to turn first to comments that Barack Obama made yesterday in Fargo, North Dakota. At a news conference shortly after his arrival, Obama discussed his upcoming trip to Iraq. He said he could re-evaluate his thinking on the war based on what he hears from military commanders.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I've always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed.

    And when I go to Iraq, and I have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I'm sure I'll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But later in the day, Obama called another press conference to clarify his position. He again pledged to bring home the troops.

  • SEN. BARACK OBAMA:

    My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in, and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war, responsibly, deliberately, but decisively.

    And I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring our troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades per month. And, again, that pace translates into having our combat troops out in 16 months' time.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Mark Shields, what's behind what Barack Obama said yesterday? Is he seriously thinking about changing his position on withdrawing American troops?

  • MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:

    Well, I think he's taking what I guess his supporters would say is a realistic position. The situation has changed.

    As far as being longer, stronger against the United States invasion, occupation of Iraq, Barack Obama owns that distinction in both parties in 2008. But now the question is — and the American voters are very practical — they say, "OK, what now?"

    He's already made that pledge that he would be out in 16 months, but he's going to Iraq. And the reality has changed in Iraq, that more Americans died in Afghanistan this past two months than died in Iraq. The Taliban is resurgent, as al-Qaida is, outside of Iraq.

    So I think it reflects that changed reality. He would look like a hopeless ideologue if he didn't, Judy. But the charge is about flip-flop because it fits in both the narrative that the Republicans are using against him and some other changes, including on public financing, that Obama did change.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But on this question of Iraq withdrawal, Ramesh, do you see a material shift or a potential material shift here?

  • RAMESH PONNURU, National Review Senior Editor:

    Well, Judy, remember, in his initial statement, he did say he was going to refine his position. He just didn't say that he was going to refine it a few hours later.

    I think what is happening is — or he wants to create the impression that he wants to get out of Iraq, but he also wants to create the impression he doesn't want to leave recklessly.

    This is all, I think, part of a sort of sprint to the center that Obama is undertaking right now. And he, I think, understands he needs to reposition himself after the primaries, but he can't do it so fast that he looks not only like an unprincipled opportunist, but I think even more damagingly like he's weak and indecisive.

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