Obama's Brass Band
By Peter Slevin
CHICAGO -- Sen. Barack Obama set out to address the military gravitas question Wednesday, standing before nine retired generals and admirals in a Chicago museum to offer fresh details of his national security thinking and renewed criticism of his chief rivals for their support of the Iraq war.
Setting his course for the April 22 Pennsylvania primary and beyond, Obama signaled an intent to spend more time addressing the five-year-old war and its implications for national security -- not least to bolster his defense against criticism from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that he lacks experience.
Clinton, citing her eight years as first lady and seven years in the Senate, contends she is more prepared to lead -- or, as she puts it, to answer a ringing White House phone at 3 a.m. Her campaign distilled that pitch into an advertisement that appeared shortly before the Texas and Ohio primaries.
"That was a last-minute gambit prior to Texas and Ohio because in their own terms, they said their campaign would end if they didn't win, so they launched this broadside," said Obama, who has called the ad an episode in the politics of fear. "Here's one good thing about it: This issue would have come up in the general election, so we might as well surface it now."
Obama added, "Certainly, if Senator Clinton is the nominee, John McCain will make this exact same argument against her."
In his prepared remarks, Obama criticized the Clinton campaign for "vague allusions to a 'Commander-in-Chief threshold' that seems to be about nothing more than the number of years you've spent in Washington."
A campaign sign on the podium declared, "Judgment to Lead."
As Obama sees it, the best example of his readiness came in October 2002, when he spoke out against the Iraq war. He reminded reporters that he explained at the time that he did not oppose all wars, but considered foolish the brewing U.S. effort to overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Because of the war, Obama said Wednesday at the Chicago Historical Museum, "we took our eye off al-Qaeda; we have lost thousands of lives and spend hundreds of billions of dollars."
"Our military is overstretched and our security and standing has been set back," Obama went on. "So don't tell me that the decision to go to war was just a speech, because it was far more than that to the men and women who served -- and continue to serve heroically in Iraq."
Obama, who has not served in the military, pledged to maintain the country's "overwhelming" advantage in conventional warfare, as well as increase ground forces by 65,000 soldiers and 27,000 Marines "to relieve the strain on our troops and to increase our capacity to put boots on the ground."
He also said he would invest in civil affairs and foreign language training, as well as the capacity to train foreign militaries.
In a reference to the Bush administration's difficult relationship with the military commanders -- symbolized by the early departure of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who said far more troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq -- Obama said President Bush did not listen to views that did not gibe with his own: "Those generals were pushed aside."
Obama said he would "seek out, listen to and respect the views of military commanders. ... When I am president, the buck will stop with me, but we will restore trust and open dialogue between the military and civilian leadership."
When Obama finished his prepared remarks, he introduced Gen. Merrill (Tony) McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff, who said the assembled coterie of retired military brass discussed Obama and their prospective endorsement at length. He described Obama as being the only one of the three remaining candidates -- Obama, Clinton and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- to be right from the start on the Iraq war.
McPeak also pointed to what he described as Obama's even temper.
"Though Sen. Obama was up in Iowa, maybe not so up in New Hampshire, he was the same Barack Obama, on the one day as the other," McPeak said. "Steady, reliable -- No shock Barack; no drama Obama. When that red phone rings at 3 a.m. you want a guy with this kind of temperament to answer that telephone."
Clinton has cultivated her own cadre of retired military brass, which at last count numbered at least thirty.
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