THE WHITE HOUSE ISN'T MAD AT MALIKI FOR WHAT HE DIDN'T SAY.

President Bush sticks his fingers in his ears and pretends not to hear Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki say he liked Obama's plan for withdrawal from Iraq:

"I talk to him all the time, and that's not what I heard," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post aboard Air Force One on the start of a trip to Asia. "I heard a man who wants to work with the United States to come up with a rational way to have the United States withdraw combat troops depending upon conditions on the ground, that's all."

Of course, the problem with saying that is that not only did Maliki mention Obama by name and describe his plan as "the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes," but the clarification issued by Maliki's aide came after the White House contacted Maliki to express disapproval. But both Bush and McCain (who responded to a question about what he would do if the U.S. was asked to leave by Maliki by simply repeating "he won't," a bunch of times) are doing a really poor job of pretending that's not what Maliki said.

Soon after Maliki's statement McCain said he thought 16 months was "a pretty good timetable." The argument is now about how to withdraw, rather than whether or not we should leave at all. McCain and Bush are stuck awkwardly trying to draw arbitrary verbal distinctions with Obama by describing their approach as "based on conditions on the ground," (something Obama has been saying for months) when not so long ago they were describing any drawdown as "defeat".

All of which begs the question: Why is McCain trying to adjust his policies to respond to something Maliki didn't say? And why did the White House need to demand "clarification" for something that wasn't said?

--A. Serwer

UPDATE:This post has been corrected. I originally said Bush announced his "time horizons" after Maliki's statement, when it was the other way around. Thanks to commenter Trevor J for the heads up.

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