A boost for Obama

February 16, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- I hope Sen. Barack Obama remembered to send Australia's John Howard a Valentine's Day card. The prime minister has done the Democratic presidential hopeful from Illinois a tremendous favor: He has treated Mr. Obama's Iraq ideas seriously.

During a television interview, Mr. Howard stuck his nose into American politics with a cheap charge that Mr. Obama's Iraq war proposal was a gift to terrorists. "If I was running al-Qaida in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and pray, as many times as possible, for a victory not only for Obama, but also for the Democrats," Mr. Howard said.

Has Mr. Howard, as they might say Down Under, gone dotty? Not quite, his apologists note, although he is under pressure. Recent polls show the prime minister lagging in his re-election bid. He also is a close ally of President Bush's, a relationship that can be frustrating these days. So Mr. Howard is playing the anti-terror card, even at the risk of recklessly injecting himself into an allied country's domestic politics.

Mr. Obama called the prime minister's bluff, sounding like a guy from a city where politics ain't beanbag. He pointed out that Australia has deployed 1,400 troops to Iraq compared with almost 140,000 who are there from the U.S. And he gave Mr. Howard a challenge: "If he's ginned up to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest he call up another 20,000 Australians and send them up to Iraq."

Yet for all of his public outrage, Mr. Obama should be privately delighted. After weeks of public fascination with his biography, his grade schools, his Hawaiian vacation photos and his nicotine withdrawal, it's about time somebody cared about his ideas.

I don't know if Mr. Howard's view will help the prime minister in Australia, but Americans know a losing cause when they see one. A new Gallup Poll says 63 percent of Americans want a timetable set to bring our troops home by the end of 2008. Even among those in the poll who back President Bush's troop increase, almost a third said they want a timetable for pulling out of Iraq.

Mr. Obama calls for a "phased redeployment" of all combat brigades by March 31, 2008, to pressure the Iraqis toward a political settlement and a reduction in violence. That's in accord with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report.

Mr. Howard might prefer the cautious two-step that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been doing on the war issue.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, positions himself as a voice for reason and "hope," his big theme these days, laying out rewards and penalties for Iraqis to strengthen their security. His plan allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain for counterterrorism and for training Iraqi security forces. The withdrawal also could be suspended temporarily as Iraqis meet goals set by the Bush administration.

The best hope and most widely praised suggestion for Iraq comes from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He calls for a "soft partitioning" of Iraq among three largely autonomous regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds under "a viable central government" in Baghdad.

If Mr. Bush's long-shot surge and counterinsurgency effort fail, Mr. Biden's plan offers the sort of compromise that has proved so elusive.

Just imagine: A serious debate could end up with a marriage of the Obama and Biden proposals. Unfortunately, we in the media are drawn to conflict more than to compromise. Too often, it just doesn't seem like news when people find themselves in agreement. They're more interesting when they sound dotty.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Kathleen Parker's column will return next week.

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