This is very, very bad news for John McCain. Having based his campaign on opposing Obama's plan for withdrawal, McCain has had legs cut out from under him. Josh Marshall and Ezra Klein, respectively:
Consider McCain's strategy, which is all bound up with Iraq.
All understand it is a given that the war is unpopular and that the vast majority of Americans want out as soon as possible. The big of wiggle room is just what's 'possible.' McCain has invested his entire campaign in support for the purportedly nascent Iraqi democracy al Maliki represents and the claim that Obama's support for a timetable for withdrawal irresponsibly risks losing the gains we've achieved and giving Iraq back to al Qaeda.
Here, with a brush of the hand and in so many words, al Maliki says, "No, we're good."
To really understand the importance of Maliki's comments, you need to consider their opposite. Imagine if Maliki had walked in front of the cameras and said, "at this stage, a timetable for withdrawal is unrealistic, and we hope our American friends will not bow to domestic political pressures and be hasty in leaving Iraq just as the country improves." It would be a transformative moment in this election. John McCain would talk of nothing else. The cable shows would talk of nothing else. Magazines would run thousands of covers about "Obama's Iraq Problem." Obama would probably lose the race.
In short, this is hard news to spin for the Republicans. It appears to be a game-changer: we no longer feel we need to stay in Iraq, simply because we broke the place. We no longer will keep occupying Iraq merely because we feel we owe it to the Iraqis to clean up our mess. It also dovetail very nicely with Obama's them of "declare victory and leave".
McCain's camp response was understandably poor:
"His domestic politics require him to be for us getting out," said a senior McCain campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The military says 'conditions based' and Maliki said 'conditions based' yesterday in the joint statement with Bush. Regardless, voters care about [the] military, not about Iraqi leaders."
An Obama official, also speaking on background, asks:
"So given that al-Maliki said today that it’s time for an official timetable and that Obama “is right when he talks about 16 months,” will McCain honor that commitment and call for withdrawal or change his position that we should leave Iraq if asked?"
Though I think there's something to the idea that Maliki is guarding his flank from the Sadrists in coming elections (the Iraqis, too, have there eye on elections this October). On the other hand, this does very little to bolster McCain's position: if Maliki has taken that position precisely to please the Iraqi people, then the call for withdrawal has even more legitimacy.
I suspect, though, that Maliki would like the US to leave. The Iraqi government has never been to keen on our presence, and tolerated us only so long as we were necessary (in 2006, when the country was really falling apart). Maliki's Da'wa party is far from pro-Western (it's closer to Iran than Sadr is), I doubt they like the idea of Iraq as a US protectorate, or an occupation for the next hundred years. He also probably realizes that the biggest impediment to his governments legitimacy is the continued occupation.
Right now McCain looks like a deer in the headlights. Either he will have to flip massively and endorse the timeline, or he will have to advocate the continued occupation of Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi government. The neither move seems politically favorable, but the latter is perfectly daffy, so I suspect McCain will do the former, reversing is number 1 campaign message ("withdrawal is dangerous"). That can't be good for his campaign. Stay tuned.