Senator Barack Obama, campaigning in New Hampshire Thursday and Friday, latched onto the recently released National Intelligence Estimate as proof that Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than Iraq, should be the priority for U.S. forces abroad.
"Al-Qaeda has regrouped, we are less safe than we were before," Obama told 600 people who came to a "Meet the Candidate" event at an elementary school in Hampton. "As President I will spend all my time trying to figure out how to keep you safe... And I would fight on the right fronts."
The Bush Administration cited the same report released earlier this week as a reason to stay in Iraq, but Obama, who said he read the classified version of the report yesterday (only seven pages were released to the public), took the opposite view. In response to a question on whether he'd withdraw troops from Afghanistan as well as Iraq, he argued that the war in Iraq "distracted" from the real mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan, allowing al-Qaeda to regroup there.
"We didn't handle Afghanistan well because we got distracted," Obama said, pacing across a makeshift stage in the school's gym before a giant flag. "We took out translators, didn't put in development money that was needed... And we didn't have a coordinated strategy to deal with Pakistan. If Pakistan falls, they are an enormous threat because they already have nuclear weapons."
Obama, sleeves rolled up and jacket off with a silver BlackBerry on his hip, took questions from the audience for 40 minutes (on top of his 19 minutes of remarks). One attendee asked Obama why he won't impeach President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
"No," Obama said over audience chuckles. "And the reason is that I think it's very important for us not to get into the habit as a political culture that we impeach every President; it's supposed to be a rare occurrence and I think it'd be an enormous political distraction. What I want to do is undo much of what this Administration's done."
Later, before 600 supporters at a town hall meeting in Manchester, Obama stressed that military might alone was not the solution to problems in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. "I wouldn't just use our military tool, not just our diplomatic tools, but our economic tools, our cultural tools, all the tools in our tool box to keep us safe," he said. He also took the opportunity to stress one of his campaign's broader themes about the future. ""When I talk about hope, the Washington press corps gets kinda of cynical, 'that's so naïve,'" Obama said. "'People with experience don't talk about hope. He's a hope peddler, he's a hope monger.'"
On Thursday, more than 500 people braved the rain in the tiny town of Sunapee (population 3,355), about 45 miles north of Manchester, to hear Obama speak at an ice cream social. Obama timed his remarks with the weather perfectly: the driving rain relented as he began to speak and resumed literally as his car door was shutting.
With most of his rivals hitting the road in Iowa this weekend, Obama had New Hampshire relatively to himself. Climbing atop picnic tables yesterday in Sunapee to answer questions, he pounded on New Hampshire Senators John Sununu and Judd Gregg, both Republicans, for expressing doubts about Bush's so-called "surge" plan in Iraq, yet refusing to vote against it this past week in the Senate.
"We won two more votes" from neighboring Maine Senator Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, on the Democrats' timeline, Obama said. "But we need your help convincing your Senators here."
From New Hampshire, Obama was planning to hop a flight to Iowa to speak at a union forum. From there he is scheduled to speak at a national Council of La Raza forum in Florida before heading to Monday's debate in South Carolina.