Obama, the Press, and Iraq

OBAMA, THE PRESS, AND IRAQ….The big story on Saturday was Spiegel’s interview with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in which he endorsed Barack Obama’s 16-month timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Bush administration was so unnerved by this that they mistakenly sent an email to the entire White House press corps headlined “Iraqi PM backs Obama troop exit plan.” Oops. Then they followed this up by leaning on Maliki to retract, an effort made clumsily transparent by releasing the Iraqi statement via the U.S. military’s Central Command press office.

The retraction claimed that Maliki’s comments were “misunderstood, mistranslated and not conveyed accurately,” which might be plausible if there were only a single sentence in question. However, how likely is it that Spiegel mistranslated three separate comments? Here are the relevant excerpts from the interview:

Today, we in Iraq want to establish a timeframe for the withdrawal of international troops — and it should be short.

….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.

….Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic….The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.

There’s just no way that all three of these passages were mistranslated. Maliki, for whatever reason (Mark Kleiman runs down the possibilities here), wants American troops out, and he wants them out sooner rather than later. There’s really no way to spin that away.

This is, obviously, bad news for John McCain. As Joe Klein says, McCain’s original support of the surge, which is his main talking point on Iraq policy, “is a small, tactical truth too complicated to be understood by most Americans. Maliki Endorses Obama Withdrawal Plan is a headline everyone can understand.”

Which is true enough, but only if that’s the headline the U.S. media actually decides on. Unfortunately, we’re in sort of a fluid phase right now in which the press seems unsure of what narrative to adopt on the current state of American foreign policy. Consider: (a) negotiations with North Korea have recently started paying off, (b) we sent a U.S. diplomat to talk with Iran over the weekend and are apparently thinking about opening an interests section in Tehran, (c) the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, leading to calls for an increased troop presence, and (d) Maliki has endorsed the idea of a 16-month withdrawal timeline from Iraq. All of these are directions that Obama has endorsed for some time.

So does the press decide that this means Obama has shown good judgment and good instincts in foreign affairs? That seems like it would be the most reasonable interpretation, but alternatively the press could decide that what this really means is that there are now very few differences between Obama and McCain on foreign policy — without implying any judgment about who was right and who was wrong. That’s a stretch, but it would be nice and faux-neutral, something that appeals to reporters.

Or, who knows? Maybe something entirely different will bubble up from the press corps. This ought to be a pretty good foreign policy moment for Obama, but we won’t know for sure until the media narrative takes shape. Stay tuned.