WASHINGTON — As he prepares for an extensive trip overseas, Barack Obama delivered a sweeping foreign policy address Tuesday in which he sought to reassure his supporters that he remains committed to ending the war in Iraq.
Obama, who has been trying to counter perceptions that he has softened his position since he locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, said the nation's future hinged on reorienting its national security priorities so that Iraq is no longer the central thrust of the U.S. military.
"I will give our military a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war," the Illinois senator said, speaking to more than 600 people at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, against a backdrop of eight American flags. "Let me be clear: We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months."
As the Iraq war winds down, Obama said, he wants to see troops redirected to Afghanistan. He said the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a war "we have to win" and repeated his call for two more combat brigades in Afghanistan to counteract "deteriorating" conditions.
John McCain, Obama's rival, upped the ante Tuesday, pledging three more brigades as part of a broader plan to "turn around the war." It is the first time the Arizona senator has been specific, but he has previously called for an increase in NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan has recently turned more deadly than the one in Iraq. On Sunday, nine American soldiers were killed in a brazen insurgent attack on an outpost, the largest number of U.S. deaths in a single incident in Afghanistan since June 2005.
McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, chided Obama on Tuesday for outlining an Iraq strategy based on limited firsthand knowledge of the region. He questioned why Obama would lay out concrete plans before visiting the region and meeting with military officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Obama is to leave soon on a trip that will take him to the Middle East and Europe. He is also expected to visit Iraq and possibly Afghanistan.
At a town hall meeting in Albuquerque, McCain said: "I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to Gen. Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time. In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy."
Obama delivered his speech at a moment when there is some confusion about his position on the war. Of late, he has given more emphasis to caveats that might impede a withdrawal of U.S. forces than on his pledge to remove troops.
Obama insists his views are unchanged. But his subtle shift in tone has sparked concerns among supporters that he is revising his position as part of a broader post-primary move to the political center.
A recent Newsweek poll showed that 53% of voters believed that Obama had changed position on important issues "in order to gain political advantage."
In his 37-minute address, Obama said he was still determined to end the war according to his declared timetable. And he noted that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's recent "call for a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces presents a real opportunity."
Bringing troops home, Obama said, is essential to achieving other goals he has deemed important: defeating Al Qaeda, rebuilding alliances and weaning the U.S. off foreign oil.
"This war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize," he said. "This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe."
Obama's speech had another purpose. As a relative newcomer to national politics, he wants to signal that he would be no pushover on the world stage. He has work to do on this front. An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 72% of Americans believe McCain would make a good commander in chief, but only 48% believe Obama would measure up.
Obama invoked a series of tough-minded foreign policy realists -- including the late George F. Kennan, architect of the Cold War containment strategy -- to reassure doubters that he would protect U.S. interests abroad.
Many of the points Obama made reflect the Washington establishment's foreign policy consensus. When he said the greatest threat to U.S. security lay in the tribal regions of Pakistan -- "where terrorists train" -- he was articulating a widely accepted doctrine. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said much the same thing.