WASHINGTON (AP) _ Preparing to travel to two countries where U.S. forces are at war, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Tuesday laid out a five-point foreign policy strategy, its top goals being an end to the Iraq war and more troops to fight al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
While American voters are consumed with the precipitous economic downturn at home, the No. 1 issue this presidential election year, Obama and Republican opponent John McCain are most sharply divided on their war strategies.
McCain says Obama's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office amounts to surrendering the country to militant forces. Obama, however, says McCain's readiness to prolong the American military presence is only coddling the Iraqi government, hurting America's status globally and distracting from the need to fight al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Afghanistan and along its rugged border with Pakistan.
Obama said America must stop “pushing the entire burden of our foreign policy on to the brave men and women of our military.''
He is visiting Iraq and Afghanistan this month after McCain sharply criticized him for vowing to withdraw American troops without having been to Iraq to consult with U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus. Obama visited the country as part of a congressional delegation earlier in the war.
But Obama was resolute in his criticism of the conflict in which more than 4,000 American forces and an untold number of Iraqis have perished in a war that he claims has tied the U.S. military down in the wrong country.
“It is unacceptable that almost seven years after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on our soil, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 are still at large,'' Obama said.
“Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari (bin Laden's No. 2) are recording messages to their followers and plotting more terror. The Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida has an expanding base in Pakistan that is probably no farther from their old Afghan sanctuary than a train ride from Washington to Philadelphia. … And yet today, we have five times more troops in Iraq than Afghanistan.''
McCain planned an address later this week focused on Afghanistan, where nine U.S. forces were killed and 14 wounded in a militant attack Sunday, the U.S. military's highest death toll there in three years.
On Monday he told reporters, “I think we need to do whatever is necessary (in Afghanistan) and that could entail more troops.''
McCain was to respond during a town-hall meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but his staff released his remarks before the event.
“Sen. Obama is departing soon on a trip abroad that will include a fact-finding mission to Iraq and Afghanistan,'' McCain said in the prepared remarks. “And I note that he is speaking today about his plans for Iraq and Afghanistan before he has even left, before he has talked to General Petraeus, before he has seen the progress in Iraq, and before he has set foot in Afghanistan for the first time. In my experience, fact-finding missions usually work best the other way around: First you assess the facts on the ground, then you present a new strategy.''
Obama was particularly critical of Pakistan for failing to resolutely deny al-Qaida a sanctuary. Nevertheless, he called for a major boost in aid to the civilian population.
“That's why I'm co-sponsoring a bill with (Senators) Joe Biden and Richard Lugar to triple non-military aid to the Pakistani people and to sustain it for a decade, while ensuring that the military assistance we do provide is used to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaida. We must move beyond a purely military alliance built on convenience, or face mounting popular opposition in a nuclear-armed nation at the nexus of terror and radical Islam.''
In addition to ending the Iraq war and shifting American forces to Afghanistan, Obama said his five-point strategy would:
_Secure “all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue nations.''
_Achieve “true energy security.''
_Rebuild “our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.''
The speech comes a day after publication of an Obama opinion piece in The New York Times that called for an estimated 7,000 additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
On Monday night in Cincinnati, Obama was welcomed by the annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention, where in a stirring speech to the oldest U.S. civil rights organization, he insisted blacks must show greater responsibility for improving their own lives.
The man who could become the first black president urged Washington to give more help for education and economic assistance and called on corporate America to greater social responsibility. He received heaviest applause as he urged blacks to demand more of themselves.
“If we're serious about reclaiming that dream, we have to do more in our own lives. There's nothing wrong with saying that,'' Obama said.
He added: “I know some say I've been too tough on folks talking about responsibility. NAACP, I'm here to report, I'm not going to stop talking about it. Because as much I'm out there to fight to make sure that government's doing its job … none of it will make a difference _ at least not enough of a difference _ if we also don't at the same time seize more responsibility in our own lives.''
Obama, who grew up without his father, has spoken and written at length about issues of parental responsibility and fathers participating in their children's lives. A similar speech on Father's Day last month prompted an awkward rebuke from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic presidential contender in 1984 and 1988, a protégé of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a fellow Chicago political activist.
Jackson apologized last week after being caught saying on an open microphone that he wanted to castrate Obama for speaking down to blacks.
McCain addressed the NAACP's 99th meeting on Wednesday.
Pictured above are John McCain, left, and Barack Obama, right.