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Barack Obama grapples with Iraq in his VFW speech

August 19, 2008 | 10:22 am

Barack Obama, following John McCain by a day at the lectern of the annual convention of the Veteran of Foreign Wars, didn't offer the "I was wrong" admission about opposing the U.S. troop surge in Iraq that his Republican rival has been tauntingly calling on him to make for weeks.

It's about as safe a bet as there is that the presumptive DePresumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks at the VFW convention in Floridamocratic presidential nominee will never do that. 

Obama did, however, make a nod to the changed circumstances on the ground in Iraq.

He allowed that "gains have been made in lowering the level of violence thanks to the outstanding efforts of our military, the increasing capability of Iraq’s Security Forces, the ceasefire of Shiite militias, and the decision taken by Sunni tribes to take the fight to al Qaeda. Those are the facts, and all Americans welcome them."

It's a better sound bite than he provided CBS News' Katie Couric last month when, during Obama's trip to various nations, including Iraq, she quizzed him about the surge.

Still, Obama's main goal in his speech in Orlando, Fla. -- as it will be when he squares off with McCain on debate stages this fall -- was to spotlight a larger perspective.

Thus, as a prelude to his comments on current conditions in Iraq, he had this to say:

"In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I warned that war would fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East, create new centers of terrorism, and tie us down in a costly and open-ended occupation.

Sen. McCain predicted that we’d be greeted as liberators, and that the Iraqis would bear the cost of rebuilding through their bountiful oil revenues. For the good of our country, I wish he had been right, and I had been wrong. But that’s not what history shows."

Obama also took note that McCain, in his VFW appearance, had suggested "as he has so many times, that I put personal ambition before my country."

Responding in typically low-key fashion -- with a tone more sorrowful than angry -- Obama responded:

"That is John McCain’s prerogative. He can run that kind of campaign, and -– frankly -– that’s how political campaigns have been run in recent years. But I believe the American people are better than that. I believe that this defining moment demands something more of us."

And, toward the end of his speech, he echoed language from his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention -- the speech that spotlighted Obama as a comer on the national scene (though few would have predicted then that this year's party confab would serve as his political coronation). Said Obama today:

"I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain. When I look out at this audience, I see people of different political views. You are Democrats and Republicans and independents. But you all served together, and fought together, and bled together under the same proud flag. You did not serve a red America or a blue America -– you served the United States of America."

The last line sparked hearty applause, according to the The Times' Seema Mehta, who was on the scene. Our colleague John McCormick also has more on the speech at the Swamp, and the complete text can be read here.

Before departing with the Obama campaign, Mehta got a chance to talk ...

... with some of those who heard the candidate.

Bob Wonnell, 60, is a registered independent in Missouri -- a state that President Bush carried easily in 2004 but the Obama camp would love to turn into a battleground state this year. Wonnell, a former Marine, won't be helping that cause -- he plans to vote for McCain because of his military background and foreign policy experience.

“I support a veteran,” he told Mehta.

But Charles Leighliter, 81, of Pittsburgh, said he agreed with Obama’s take on securing the nation and enhancing its stature around the world.

“He’s going to be good for America,” said the Air Force veteran.

Leighliter also mentioned the age issue in discussing why he would not be supporting McCain, who soon turns 72. "He’s a fellow veteran and I think the world of him. But I don’t think he’s right for president. My personal opinion? I think he’s a little too old. I do,” he said.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: Bloomberg News