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Obama Rebuts Bush on Iraq and Afghanistan Surgelet

DAYTON, Ohio — After finishing an education address that was supposed to drive his campaign message today, Sen. Barack Obama tacked a press conference onto his Ohio schedule, in order to catch up with President George W. Bush’s big announcement of a small withdrawal of troops from Iraq — and a surgelet for Afghanistan.

Speaking in a calm, almost disappointed voice, Obama criticized Bush for tweaking Iraq policy without a timetable and promising troops for Afghanistan after the Bush’s era’s expiration date:

Today, President Bush announced very modest troop redeployments from Iraq… We will continue to spend $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a $79 billion surplus. In the absence of a timetable to remove our combat brigades, we will continue to give Iraq’s leaders a blank check instead of pressing them to reconcile their differences. So the President’s talk of “return on success” is a new name for continuing the same strategic mistake that has dominated our foreign policy for over 5 years.

After the prepared address, Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe pressed Obama on whether the Iraq surge really was wildly successful, as Obama recently said, if security improvements are easily reversed. Obama reiterated that the reductions in violence exceeded expectations — both his and the Bush administration’s — but the core challenges still turn on the Iraqis tackling governance and political problems, including provincial elections, oil revenues and effective government spending.

After that exchange, the traveling press corps wasted the three other questions on The Horse Race.

Obama largely declined the invitation to play pundit to his own candidacy, saying he was not focused on “today’s news or yesterday’s polls.” Here in the press filling center on the second floor of a high-school gym, however, ABC News still led with a report on Obama dismissing the “Palin effect.” Obama says both parties get bounces after their conventions(!), according to the dispatch.

Then there was a refreshing Buckeye contrast. When Obama walked away from his impromptu news conference lectern, a local TV reporter cornered him to ask about the proposed DHL merger, which could slash 8,000 jobs from a local air hub.

Obama took the unscheduled bait — recounting a private meeting he had today with DHL employees, criticizing the “lack of regard” the company had for its workers and pledging to use any “leverage” he had to help labor and raise the “anti-trust implications.” His aides yelled that he had to go, and the stand-up abruptly ended.

During the prepared portion of his press conference, Obama also seized on Bush’s Afghanistan surgelet, knocking the approach and claiming credit for setting the direction of White House policy:

President Bush also announced additional troops for Afghanistan. I am glad that the president is moving in the direction of the policy that I have advocated for years. But the most substantial increase will come when an additional Army brigade is deployed five months from now – in February, after the president has left office. His plan comes up short – it is not enough troops, and not enough resources, with not enough urgency. What President Bush and Sen. McCain don’t understand is that the central front in the war on terror is not in Iraq — and it never was. The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the terrorists who hit us on 9/11 are still plotting attacks seven years later. Today, the Taliban is on the offensive, Al Qaeda has a new sanctuary, and its leaders are putting out videotapes. Yet under President Bush’s plan, we still have nearly four times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan, and we have no comprehensive plan to deal with the Al Qaeda sanctuary in northwest Pakistan.

Obama looked commanding and prescient — adeptly criticizing Bush while also invoking the White House for foreign-policy validation.

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