Gates seemed to suggest there was some flexibility, that "it was a clear statement of his strong intent" and that "the president always has the freedom to re-evaluate his decisions." After the hearing Graham said he took that to mean the date is "not locked in" and will depend on conditions on the ground.
It was a point of contention at the White House briefing today – I asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs if senators were incorrect calling the date a "target."
After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in – there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel.
Lindsey Graham will not be happy. Neither will John McCain – and a whole lot of other Republicans who believe any kind of time line means "advantage: enemy."
Keep in mind that the PACE of the withdrawal will still depend on conditions on the ground – which means it could be a very small number of troops if things are not going well.
Full Text of Obama's Remarks
Bob Schieffer: "Defining Moment" of Obama Presidency
Marc Ambinder's Analysis: Obama Taking Big Risk
Mark Knoller: No Mention of "Victory"
McCain: No Deadlines for Afghan Withdrawal
Rep. Obey: Afghan War Must Be Paid For
Obama's Surge Comes with Expiration Date
Early Reaction to the Speech
Who Offers the Better Deal in Afghanistan?
Liberals Chastise Afghanistan Troop Increase
Polling Analysis: Afghanistan 2009 Vs. Iraq 2007
CBSNews.com Special Report: Afghanistan