Visiting Iraq

SUMMARY: As the experience question is raised again, Sen. John McCain says his many visits to Iraq are part of what makes him better prepared than Sen. Barack Obama to lead the country, which in turn raises the question of how valuable those congressional trips really are.

McCain, his surrogates and his allies have lambasted Obama in recent days for having visited Iraq just once during the war, which they say reflects a failure on his part to learn about the conflict and bone up on national security issues.

"Sen. Obama and I have a strong disagreement on this issue," McCain told a crowd at a town hall meeting in Reno, Nev., on May 28, 2008. "And Sen. Obama has been to Iraq once. A little over two years ago he went."

It echoed a charge in an advertisement by the anti-Obama group Vets for Freedom . "The last time Barack Obama visited Iraq was in January 2006," the ad said. "Since then, much has changed." The Republican National Committee chimed in with a new feature on its Web site that counts the days since Obama last visited Iraq.

Indeed, it is true that Obama has visited Iraq just once, in early 2006. McCain has visited Iraq eight times during the war, so to the extent that he steers the debate to time spent in the war zone, he would seem to argue from a position of strength. That's not the whole story though. Two of McCain's Iraq trips have been marked by gaffes that critics said called into question his command of the issues in Iraq. And the larger record of senatorial visits to Iraq suggests that elected officials get a limited view of the action there.

First, though, McCain's side of the story: Obama's scant time in Iraq reflects the larger problem that he is inexperienced on matters of national security, and has not made enough of an effort to learn about what is happening in Iraq, Republicans argue.

"He really has no experience or knowledge or judgment about the issue of Iraq," McCain said in an interview with the Associated Press on May 26. "If there was any other issue before the American people, and you hadn't had anything to do with it in a couple of years, I think the American people would judge that very harshly."

A close ally of McCain's, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, suggested recently that Obama travel with McCain to Iraq. McCain said that would be fine with him. "I go back every few months because things are changing in Iraq," McCain told the Associated Press. "I would also seize that opportunity to educate Sen. Obama along the way."

The record shows that McCain's first trip was in August 2003, about three months after President Bush declared an end to major combat activity in Iraq – and it was indeed a learning experience.

McCain was troubled by what he saw, and upon his return became somewhat critical of the war effort, an uncommon stance at the time for a Republican. He said on NBC's Meet the Press that the president should send more troops and resources to Iraq.

"Time is not on our side," he told host Tim Russert. "People in 125-degree heat with no electricity and no fuel are going to become angry in a big hurry. The sophistication of the attacks on U.S. and allied troops have increased. And what we do in the next several months will determine whether we're in a very difficult situation or not, and there's still time, but we've got to act quickly."

Prominent Democrats had been saying much the same thing, and lauded McCain's candor. However, remarks he made after two more recent trips to Iraq – last spring lauding security in a market that was heavily guarded just for his visit, and in March mistakenly accusing Shiite-dominated Iran of training the Sunni group Al Qaeda in Iraq – have sparked questions about his own knowledge of the situation on the ground in Iraq.

Obama's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but Democrats and independent experts have called into question the value of senatorial visits to Iraq. Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., referred to the trips as "dog and pony shows" in July 2007. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada told reporters in March 2008 that after visiting Iraq he came to see the trips as a waste of military resources. "We had helicopters moving around, we had numerous security people around me, and my personal feeling is, I would rather those people trying to protect me were trying to protect other people," the Democratic leader said.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a defense expert at the libertarian Cato Institute and critic of the Iraq war since before the invasion, said that judging by the reports and news accounts the congressional trips to Iraq are "basically guided tours by the U.S. military." "Anyone in a congressional delegation or in any other capacity who thinks they will have the ability to really see Iraq and understand what's going on is I think being a little nave," Carpenter said. Nevertheless, Obama told the New York Times that he was considering visiting Iraq this summer after he wins the nomination, but he was not likely to go with McCain. "I think that if I'm going to Iraq, then I'm there to talk to troops and talk to commanders," he said May 28, 2008. "I'm not there to try to score political points or perform. The work they're doing there is too important."

On MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that day, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama would want to talk to troops and commanders to "see what sort of difficulties they're facing and see how it is that we can begin to carefully remove them and carefully bring them back to their families and bring them back to the United States."

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers portrayed that as an intention to surrender. "It's unfortunate that Sen. Obama continues to refuse to seek the facts but instead will go to Iraq, look our troops in the eye, and admit defeat," Rogers said in a press release.