The indications are that Barack Obama is returning from his visits to Afghanistan and Iraq with at least a more nuanced view of Iraq.

His view of Afghanistan remains unequivocal: It is the central front in the war on terrorism; he would deploy at least 10,000 more U.S. combat troops there; and he fears that a long-term military presence in Iraq will detract from that fight.

The Democrats took control of Congress with the commitment to implement a specific timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. In the event, the Democrats weren’t able to pull off the timetable, and the success of the surge has eased the pressure to fulfill that promise. But Obama appeared to echo the original commitment in his campaign platform: "So when I am commander in chief, I will set a new goal on day one: I will end this war."

But his campaign Web site is more guarded, calling for "a responsible, phased withdrawal" in consultation with the U.S. military commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government. Oh, and there would be "a residual force" to conduct counterterrorism operations — and how is this not combat? — and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel, as of now our largest foreign mission.

Obama did get to consult with the Iraqi government, and the upshot from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not so much nuanced as simply confused. In an interview with a German magazine, al-Maliki seemed to embrace Obama’s plan for a 16-month withdrawal, which would put a U.S. exit around May 2010.

That was quickly amended — perhaps after an angry call from the White House –to the hope that the violence would have subsided enough by 2010 that the United States could start leaving. That’s a big caveat. And it should be seen in the Iraqi political context. Despite their factionalism, Iraqis have a prickly sense of nationalism and their politicians, regardless of what they may think privately, have to publicly favor an imminent, but not too imminent, U.S. departure.

It is too much to say Obama is drawing closer to John McCain, who has some really serious caveats: No U.S. withdrawal until al Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and a capable government and security forces able to safeguard the people are in place.

But a nebulous call for a U.S. withdrawal in 16 months may not be all that far from President Bush’s even more nebulous "general time horizon" for withdrawal.

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