The Iraq-eteers

John McCain has yet to criticize any of his Republican opponents directly for their positions on Iraq. As for his staff, that’s another story.

Mr. McCain’s go-to Iraq expert says, for example, that he couldn’t believe his ears when Mitt Romney recently told ABC’s Good Morning America that he supports “timetables and milestones” for the Iraq government to meet, but ones that “shouldn’t be for public pronouncement.”

Mr. McCain “does not believe in timetables or deadlines, secret or otherwise,” said the advisor, Randy Scheunemann. “He has made it clear that setting a timetable or deadline is nothing more than setting a date certain for surrender.”

Mr. Scheunemann, a former president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and advisor to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sounded equally unimpressed with some recent comments from Rudy Giuliani, who told reporters last week that President Bush and the Democrats in Congress should reach a compromise over Iraq funding legislation that includes dates of withdrawal.

“Frankly, it does not make a lot of sense talking about negotiations in advance of the President even having a bill on his desk,” he said.

While primary voters in both parties have had a difficult time discerning and keeping track of the different attitudes of the candidates toward the war in Iraq, it is staff-level Iraq advisors like Mr. Scheunemann who provide the best guide to the distinctions between the various camps.

On the Democratic side, their Iraq point-people meet monthly at a Washington restaurant for a lunch presided over by former United Nations ambassador Richard Holbrooke. The assembled foreign-policy wonks all know each other and get along—to an extent.

“It’s a very collegial group,” said Antony Blinken, 44, senior advisor to Senator Joe Biden in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee office, who served as the principal advisor to President Clinton on U.S. relations with Europe and NATO. “Obviously, there are some distinctions on Iraq.”

The attendees of those gatherings tend to state those differences at least as plainly as the candidates do.

Mr. Blinken, who has helped Mr. Biden fine-tune his controversial proposal to devolve powers to autonomous Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish ethnic regions, makes a point of saying that none of the other campaigns have done as much.

“What’s the alternative? No one has one,” said Mr. Blinken, who argued that the Iraqi Constitution actually called for the federalist system that Mr. Biden was proposing. “It’s in the Iraqi Constitution, but he is the only one who has bothered to read it.”

But the Democratic front-runners have distinguished themselves in other ways.

The Big Three

John Edwards’ representative at the lunches, for example, advocates the withdrawal of as many as 50,000 combat troops from Iraq within the next three months and favors revoking the war’s authorization and funding.

His guru is Derek Chollet, a 36-year-old unpaid advisor and oddly prolific ghostwriter of political autobiographies of State and ambassadors, who is a veteran of Washington think tanks.

Mr. Chollet recently helped found the Center for a New American Security, whose first mission has been identifying how many American troops it would take to prevent what it calls “the three no’s”: stopping Al Qaeda from gaining a foothold in Iraq, keeping a civil war from spilling across Iraq’s borders, and avoiding genocide. He has been advising Mr. Edwards since 2002, after helping write the memoirs of two former Secretaries of State, James Baker and Warren Christopher, and then the speeches and Bosnia memoir of Mr. Holbrooke, who encouraged him to advise Mr. Edwards.

“There was a pragmatism about him that I found attractive,” said Mr. Chollet, adding that he talked “a lot” with Mr. Edwards as the candidate developed his Iraq policy.

He thinks that the candidate is much more solid now on matters of foreign policy, an area seen as his weakness in the 2004 election. “Now I’m hard-pressed to think that there is any issue he could get asked about in a town hall or Meet the Press setting that could be a stumper,” he said.

Barack Obama, whose lack of foreign-policy experience puts him in danger of being this year’s John Edwards, is represented at the meetings by Senate staffer Mark Lippert, 34, whom Mr. Obama poached from the Senate appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

Mr. Lippert talks about Mr. Obama’s plan as a somewhat flexible (critics would say vague) set of goals: the withdrawal of an unspecified number of troops starting May 1 and of all combat troops by next March, but with the possibility of 90-day tour extensions as rewards to the Iraqi government if it starts meeting long-drawn deadlines for progress.

“We are not dictating troop levels; we are dictating the overall goal,” said Mr. Lippert.

“All the deadlines are flexible if they reach benchmarks,” he added. “The goals are achievable.

Janice O’Connell, a longtime foreign-policy advisor in Chris Dodd’s Senate office, is also a regular at the lunches.

And then there’s Hillary Clinton’s day-to-day policy advisor on Iraq, Andrew Shapiro, 39, who is her Senate office’s senior defense and foreign-policy advisor. He worked for the hawkish Senator Joseph Lieberman in the 2000 Presidential campaign, and before that he was a lawyer with the Washington, D.C., law firm Covington & Burling.

“We agree more broadly that the Bush administration has been a disaster,” Mr. Shapiro said of his fellow advisors. “At the same time, we are loyal to our bosses, we’re all professionals, and we’re all there to help our bosses to the best of our abilities.”

Mr. Shapiro arguably has the hardest job of any of the advisors, not only because he is constantly in grave danger of being big-footed by his candidate’s uniquely heavy network of Democratic foreign-policy establishmentarians, but also because he is charged with helping to shape what is the most difficult Iraq War plan of any of the candidates.

Mrs. Clinton has shied away from setting a hard deadline, although she has said that all combat troops could, under ideal circumstances, come back home by the end of President Bush’s term. Like Mr. Obama, she favors the creation of benchmarks to measure the shifting of responsibility to Iraq’s security forces and fair distribution of oil revenues, but she is alone in proposing a cutoff of money to Iraqi security forces as a way to force the Iraqi government to make political progress.

“The only way it is going to change is to exert leverage that they will understand,” said Mr. Shapiro.

Not all of the campaigns have taken a seat at the Holbrooke foreign-policy table.

“I’m not a professional Washington insider—I’m a college professor,” said Michael Contarino, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, who advises Governor Bill Richardson on Iraq affairs.

Mr. Contarino, 52, has been drafting a new multilateral foreign-policy doctrine that he and Mr. Richardson call “the new realism,” and he is decidedly less inhibited than the other experts in assessing the Iraq policies of the Democratic candidates.

“It’s certainly different from Hillary’s,” he said of Mr. Richardson’s plan. “In a nutshell, we need to get out. Our continued presence in Iraq is not making things better. We are stuck in the middle of a civil war.”

Of Mrs. Clinton, he said: “She does seem to be unclear what her own position is here.” And of Mr. Obama: “I think he has been a little bit vague about this. He never had any foreign-policy experience. I’m not surprised he hasn’t been particularly detailed in his comments.”

A Looser Union of Republicans

For all their differences, the Iraq experts on the Democratic side are a veritable supper club compared with the Republican campaigns.

It’s not that the Republicans disagree on principle—they all disdain the advocacy of troop withdrawals by Democrats as tantamount to a calamitous defeat for America—but rather that only one of them, Mr. McCain, seems to be offering any substantive alternative to White House policy at all.

In fact, it’s hard to tell whom the other leading Republican candidates are getting their advice from.

Mr. Giuliani has criticized some aspects of the American performance in Iraq, but has basically supported the President’s plan without addressing its specific shortcomings. Asked about his day-to-day Iraq advisor, his campaign would only say that he speaks with many individuals, including retired Gen. Jack Keane and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

Mr. Romney’s campaign also offered advisors—former Representative Vin Weber and former Senator Jim Talent—but could not point to one specific Iraq advisor.

(Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said that Mr. Scheunemann’s remarks on the ABC interview were “an obvious and blatant distortion of Governor Romney’s position,” saying that Mr. Romney wasn’t talking about withdrawal timetables and that he has “been very clear in advocating metrics and milestones that measure steps toward success in Iraq.”)

By contrast, Mr. McCain—whose big-name advisors include Henry Kissinger—has a more straightforward message articulated, for better or worse, by Mr. Scheunemann.

In an echo of Mr. McCain’s sunny (and much-criticized) assessment of security after a recent, heavily sanitized tour of Baghdad, Mr. Scheunemann argued that the increase in troops that Mr. McCain supports is vital to achieving any sort of political and economic progress within Iraq.

While Mr. McCain’s poll numbers have dipped in part because of his support for the unpopular war, Mr. Scheunemann says that there are signs of cautious optimism in Iraq, and that Mr. McCain’s recent meeting with Sunni sheiks in the embattled Anbar province represents “a fundamental change, and possibly a strategic shift, in the fight against Al Qaeda.”

“He will stick with this as long as possible,” said Mr. Scheunemann. “He means it with every fiber of his being that he would rather lose a campaign than lose a war.” The Iraq-eteers