At long last, the ultimate flip-flop is at hand.

“I’ve always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed,” he said. “And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”…

“My 16-month timeline, if you examine everything that I’ve said, was always premised on making sure that our troops were safe,” he said. “I said that based on the information that we had received from our commanders that one to two brigades a month could be pulled out safely, from a logistical perspective. My guiding approach continues to be that we’ve got to make sure that our troops are safe and that Iraq is stable.”

He added, “I’m going to continue to gather information to find out whether those conditions still hold.”

I’m not going to rub his face in it. The important thing is to make the right decision and he’s nearer to that now than he’s ever been. Yeah, it’s almost certainly for cynical political reasons, but so long as the progress continues and public opinion improves, those cynical political reasons will continue to steer him right. It’s true, too, what Axelrod said earlier about Obama having consistently left himself some wiggle room on Iraq: As far back as last July he was using the line about being as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, and even his awful proposal from January 2007 to have all combat troops out by March 31, 2008 called for temporarily suspending the withdrawal if the Iraqi government met all 13 of Bush’s benchmarks. None of which is to say that he wasn’t completely wrong about the surge or that he’s not light years less confidence-inspiring than McCain is on this issue, but I don’t want to punish good behavior, especially when so few of the people on his side are even willing to entertain the notion of rethinking our commitment in light of the security gains.

The one truly new and startling element of what he said here is the boldfaced part about Iraqi stability, which I can’t remember ever factoring heavily into his rhetoric. Neither can Michael Crowley of TNR, who’s evidently been researching Obama’s Iraq plan in some detail for an upcoming article. The importance of stability did pop up in last year’s speech on Iraq in Iowa, but mainly in the context of negotiations with Iran and other other countries around it. The strongest language I can find in the speech about using troops to maintain stability comes in an aside about withdrawing from more secure areas before we withdraw from less secure ones. Exit question: How’s he going to explain this to the nutroots?

Update: Heart-ache at DU. “ARE YOU KIDDING???”

Update: The heart-ache spreads. ABC says it’s a game-changer:

His comments Wednesday, saying that he will “continue to refine” his plan to withdraw combat troops from Iraq inside of 16 months, seems likely to leave the campaign on the defensive on this issue for days or weeks…

There will be only one relevant question now out of Obama’s trip now: Do you stand by your plan? Obama is unlikely to give a direct, yes-or-no answer — and that’s where Sen. John McCain and his allies can and will pounce…

Obama’s migration to the political center has been well-documented, and is already a frame McCain is building around his candidacy. But Iraq — this is qualitatively different, an issue that lives on a higher plane, since opposing the war was the rationale for his candidacy in the first place.

They also point to the statement on withdrawal at Obama’s website, which sounds considerably less nuanced than what he said today.

Update: Why would he say this now? What does he gain from it politically? Iraq’s receded as an issue vis-a-vis the economy. The latest poll shows 64% want the next president to withdraw most troops within a few months of taking office, a three percent increase since March. Scroll down at the link to the last poll taken before that and you’ll find 56% want troops out in the next year or two regardless of what it would mean for Iraq’s stability. That is to say, Obama’s now theoretically to the right of most of the public. Why?

Conceivably he’s worried that the progress will continue for the next few months and popular opinion will start to move significantly shortly before Election Day, in which case he’ll be caught flat-footed if he doesn’t get out in front of it. Also conceivably, he figures he’s got McCain beat on enough other issues that he might as well neutralize this one by mimicking him. It’s not like the left is going to stay home and throw away universal health care; most of them, I suspect, will simply shrug this off as a political gambit to be abandoned once Obama’s elected. But like I said last week, it’s hard to see things in Iraq improving so dramatically and public opinion shifting so dynamically that Obama would actually suffer for his dovishness at the polls. If he sticks to his withdrawal line, realistically the worst that can happen is the issue becomes a wash. In which case, why would he do this? Could the Messiah actually be having a genuine change of opinion based on the facts or does election-year demonization not allow that possibility? And if it is genuine, then, er, why doesn’t he just keep it to himself until after Election Day?

Update: A climbdown — or is it?

In a second, quickly-scheduled press availability, the Senator insists his position on Iraq has not changed.

“I intend to end this war… That position has not changed. I have not equivocated on that position. I am not searching for maneuvering room with respect to that position.”

Though he also says:

“I have always reserved the right to do what’s best for America’s national interest… I would be a poor commander-in-chief if I didn’t take facts on the ground into account.”

Update: More clarification: “I have seen no information that contradicts the notion that we can bring out troops out safely at a pace of one to two brigades per month… This is the same position that I had four months ago.”