So now that the Democrats have won control of Congress, what should they do about the war in Iraq?
“I never understand that question,” answered Charlie Rangel, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “You have a President that’s in deep shit. He got us into the war, and all the reasons he gave have been proven invalid, and the whole electorate was so pissed off that they got rid of anyone they could have, and then they ask, ‘What is the Democrats’ solution?’”
For many Democrats, Iraq is George Bush’s war, a Republican conflict that they are powerless to influence. They’ve also calculated—correctly, to judge by the midterm elections—that the voting public understands that the G.O.P. is responsible for the hellish situation in Iraq that now threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East.
Even after the election, which gave control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats, the party’s strategy on dealing with the day’s dominant policy issue has been collected, if highly reactive—while the Republicans, for once, have torn themselves to pieces amid recriminations over the war that wrecked their ruling majority.
But although it hasn’t received as much attention, the Democrats are divided, too.
The Democrats in Congress—especially those who opposed the war every step of the way—are loath to do anything that might give them an obvious stake in the war’s future.
It’s a very different calculus, meanwhile, for those Democrats harboring hopes of capturing the White House in 2008. As the killing in Baghdad intensifies—and almost everyone believes that it will continue to do so—some potential candidates are trying to articulate coherent positions now. They understand that this issue isn’t simply going to disappear in the next two years, and they argue that opposition alone doesn’t constitute a credible foreign-policy position.
“The question is, are you just going to fold up and leave regardless of the situation on the ground, or can you, through diplomacy, try and craft a more favorable exit?” said Gen. Wesley Clark, one likely Presidential nominee. “My argument is that you can.”
General Clark has a unique perspective among prospective candidates. He acted as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and played a major role in negotiating the Dayton Peace Accords that helped prevent the Kosovo War, the bloodiest European conflict since World War II, from spiraling into full-scale genocide.
He agreed with many Congressional Democrats that “there is no way in which this problem belongs to the Congress and the Democrats.” But he broke with the party’s default position, advocated by Senate leaders Harry Reid and Carl Levin, that a phased redeployment of troops should begin in the next four to six months—come what may for the Iraqis left behind in the paroxysm of sectarian slaughter that is sure to follow.
General Clark specifically warned against the idea of a timeline for troop withdrawal, because it would mean a loss of American leverage in fostering a potential political solution. He added that without a political process, “the discussion about troop levels is sort of missing the point.”
General Clark isn’t the only one trying to find an alternative. Hillary Clinton, despite the maddeningly deliberate pace of her evolution on the issue, seems genuinely to be searching for a position on Iraq that will allow for eventual withdrawal but doesn’t leave the Iraqis entirely at the mercy of local militias and foreign terrorists.
Mrs. Clinton has fought for armored Humvees and better armor for American troops while also repeatedly calling for the training of more Iraqi troops so they can provide security themselves. She has argued that all Iraqis should benefit from oil profits through a revenue-sharing plan and for helping them to establish a more effective national government. And despite criticism from anti-war liberals within the party, she has been consistently reluctant to talk about specific timetables for withdrawal.
Delaware Senator Joseph Biden has argued that Iraq is going to become a Democratic problem, too. Republicans, he said, “don’t want to run for re-election to Congress or for the Presidency in 2008 with Iraq around their necks. Democrats do not want to assume the Presidency in 2009 saddled with a losing war.”
He has argued the futility of Mr. Bush’s efforts to build “a strong central government” and instead advocated the establishment of “three or more largely autonomous regional governments” that are bound by shared oil revenues.
Senator Barack Obama summed the situation up succinctly in a Nov. 20 speech on Iraq. “There are,” he said, “no good options left in this war.”
And yet, while the proposals some Democrats are making have their detractors, they are at least adding something to the debate. In that respect, they are exceptions.
Most Democrats, like their suddenly skeptical Republican counterparts, have taken to paternalistic tough-love tones when addressing Iraq, as if it were simply a matter of convincing the weak and rudderless Iraqi central government to cooperate.
“I think it is for domestic consumption mainly,” said George Packer, the author of The Assassins’ Gate, one of the definitive chronicles of the American involvement in Iraq. “It’s become a kind of convenient posture to make Democrats look like they’re standing up to the President, to the Iraqis, and standing up for the soldiers. But it doesn’t solve anything.”
Senator Charles Schumer, who has come to be regarded as the party’s pre-eminent electoral tactician after engineering this year’s Democratic takeover of the Senate, explained the dynamic from a strategic point of view.
“I think what Democrats should do is very similar to what Reid, Levin and the Baker Commission advocate, which is a year of transition where you stop policing a civil war and you start focusing on counterterrorism, force protection and training,” said Mr. Schumer. “It’s very hard to see the future, but for the moment I think that’s the best of the so-called solutions, because Iraq is such a mess.”
But the commission report, by the admission of its authors, is simply their iteration of the least-bad option.
Military experts in and out of the Oval Office have questioned the practicality of the findings of the Iraq Study Group, dismissing the report as a political document drafted to put a face-saving gloss on defeat and withdrawal.
Notably, so have a number of early war opponents, like recently retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who now advocates a short-term increase in troop levels in Baghdad to try to bring some level of stability to the Iraqi capital before American troops start leaving.
That is also the position, it should be noted, of Senator John McCain, a leading prospective Republican candidate. Whatever happens over the next two years, Mr. McCain will be able to argue that he has taken a clear position on the war with a goal, however fanciful, of achieving some sort of victory.
Clarity, as the Presidential election of 2004 proved, always beats a muddle. And that could mean that this disastrous war—conceived of and advocated by a Republican administration and Congress—could wind up damaging the most promising Democratic general-election candidates in 2008.
“Certainly the Democratic Party in 2008, if this war is still going on, will have a fiercely anti-war candidate as its nominee, and that begins to exclude certain people who are assumed now to be favorites,” said Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “And so there is a powerful incentive for finding some way to diffuse this and get this off the political agenda.”
One way to get it off the agenda is simply to leave.
William Perry, the former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton and a primary author of the military part of the Iraq Study Group’s report, originally drafted language that called for all combat troops to leave Iraq by early 2008.
But that is only a credible alternative if the prospect of wholesale genocide is regarded as unavoidable. Here’s the grim part: Some of the most intelligent Democrats in Washington have concluded that it is.
“They are going to have this civil war and we can’t prevent it, and I would rather have it that there are 2,800 American dead rather than 28,000 American dead,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, who said that he wrestled with the moral implications of leaving for months before concluding that a quick withdrawal was the best option. “It’s not a nice conclusion; it’s not a happy conclusion. I reached a conclusion that we have so screwed up the situation that lots of people are going to die, and there is nothing we can do about it.”
Mr. Nadler proposes offering American allies in Iraq, such as translators and drivers, safe passage and sanctuary in the United States.
Other House Democrats in favor of withdrawal have stressed the importance of not letting civil war engulf the greater region.
Representative Anthony Weiner, for example, advocates moving American troops to the Iranian border to stem the flow of Shiite fighters entering the country, and also defending the Syrian border to prevent armaments from reaching the Sunni insurgents. The rest of the troops should then be sent to join the fight in Afghanistan or other areas where the military is understaffed.
Mr. Weiner concedes that his plan, which he calls a variation of Representative John Murtha’s headline-grabbing withdrawal scenario, “is not ending the fight in the schoolyard, but sealing the schoolyard off so that it can’t get much bigger.”
The problem is that sectarian warfare will develop into unmitigated genocide in mixed-population areas like Baghdad. “You’d see genocidal-style civil war,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “If you are in favor of withdrawal, I think you have to admit that.”
Another problem with a predetermined troop withdrawal, some Democrats say, is the reduction of leverage in influencing a political settlement.
Mr. Clark imagined a scenario in which Americans tried to influence Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki without troops to provide leverage.
“You go to al-Maliki and you say, ‘We want you to get this training organized,’ and he says, ‘Well, it’s difficult to do.’ And you say, ‘Well, if you don’t do it and get it done right, then’—what? ‘We will not give you extra money for training for next year’? ‘You won’t get invited to my birthday party’? What? What? You lose the ability to empower, at the top level, the dialogue that is essential to resolving the political issues.”
Mr. Packer said that Senators Biden, Clinton and Obama were among the officials who struck him as understanding the drastic consequences of a withdrawal of American forces, both in terms of the widespread slaughter that would take place in Iraq and the significant blow to the United States’ reputation around the world. “They do know that we can’t just leave, that it’s not a matter of cutting our losses and getting out,” said Mr. Packer.
But tell that to the Charlie Rangel.
“Ever since I was a kid, everyone was just praying for someone to break up the fight,” said Mr. Rangel, a decorated veteran of the Korean War. “And it’s clear that we can’t break up the fight. We have no clue of the Pandora’s box that we opened up over there.”
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