Three days and three translations later, the shock waves from the alleged Nuri al-Maliki "endorsement" of Sen. Barack Obama's timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq have been tempered by a statement from the Prime Minister's office making clear that the German magazine Der Spiegel got it all wrong. In their rapture at the thought that their golden boy had conquered Sen. John McCain on the one issue on which he holds a distinct advantage over Sen. Obama, national security; many media outlets, bloggers, commentators, and pundits of the left declared the remarks to be the death of the Republican presidential campaign. The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder said:
"This could be one of those unexpected events that forever changes the way the world perceives an issue. Iraq's Prime Minister agrees with Obama, and there's no wiggle room or fudge factor. This puts John McCain in an extremely precarious spot: what's left to argue? to [sic] argue against Maliki would be to predicate that Iraqi sovereignty at this point means nothing. Obviously, our national interests aren't equivalent to Iraq's, but... Malik [sic] isn't listening to the generals on the ground...but the "hasn't been to Iraq" line doesn't work here. [awk]
Mr. Ambinder must have been in a bit of a hurry to get that post up, so we'll forgive the capitalization, spelling, and grammatical errors. As it turns out, however, he could have taken his time. We now know that Maliki did not endorse Obama's withdrawal timeline. The headline writer at Der Spiegel did. What Maliki did was call for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq as early as possible. That's no surprise announcement from an elected head of state with political considerations, and it is certainly no surprise from Maliki, who has been calling for an end to the occupation almost since he was sworn in.
Maybe that's why Ambinder left open the possibility that Maliki would revise his remarks. "Will Maliki retract his words?" he asked. Well, Maliki did. But so far, Ambinder has not.
First, here's the latest version of what Maliki actually said via the New York Times. [without the grains of salt]
The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”
He continued: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”
There are an awful lot of qualifiers in there, but Ambinder has the analysis all wrong. He says that the Maliki quote is a big deal and that it puts McCain in a "precarious spot." That's very shallow thinking. Even if Maliki's remarks were an explicit endorsement of Obama's position on withdrawals, it would still be a victory for McCain.
Obama opposed the surge. He said that he was "not persuaded" that an additional 20,000 U.S. troops would have any impact on the level of violence. He campaigned on his opposition to the surge in the primaries. And he said that the surge was not succeeding. Indeed, Obama's entire campaign is based on his supposed superior judgment, which is based his opposition to the Iraq war from the beginning; although he was not in a position to have to take a meaningful vote on the war at the time. For Obama to now claim vindication for his arbitrary timetable based on the remarks of a man would would not be able to make such demands were it not for the success of the very strategy that Obama opposed, is a bit much. Obama did not all of a sudden become the man with the plan in Iraq because the elected leader there sought to curry favor with his constituents and a potential future American president by paying a lip service compliment to the latter's public position.
It was McCain who advocated for the surge long before it was announced, angering many on the right with his routine and unnecessary attacks on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who McCain sees as responsible for all things that have gone wrong in Iraq. It is McCain who has campaigned on his belief that withdrawals must be conditions-based, not arbitrarily ordered based on politics. And it has been McCain who has often remarked that he would rather lose the election than lose the war. McCain stands to benefit from any positive news from Iraq. Maliki's call for a timetable for withdrawal, had it happened, would have been the end result of the strategy McCain authored, championed, and stood by. Ambinder's read of Maliki's remarks was a bit wishful.
Besides, it didn't happen. Maliki's spokesman says that the prime minister's remarks were, "misunderstood, mistranslated and not conveyed accurately." We don't know whether the spokesman read Mr. Ambinder's take before offering his comments, but he may as well have.
Which brings us back to Ambinder's, as yet, still uncorrected error. One hopes that Maliki's spokesman's characterization of the prime minister's comments will make its way into the Atlantic's pixels. When it does, it will almost certainly contain no errors, as Mr. Ambinder seems likely to take his time with this news item.