If Iraq rarely comes up in the Democratic primary, it’s because, for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, there is nothing left to discuss.
The differences between them on extricating troops are miniscule, and the greatest point of contention is aboutn the past: who did or didn’t support the war, nearly seven years ago. But come the general election, Iraq will be important again, and the antiwar positions embraced during the Democratic primary will need to be advanced against John McCain, who has consistently argued for troops to fight on until they win, whatever that means.
It is on this prospect that the notion of 2008 as a Democratic year, to a great extent, is premised. America opposes the war; America will oppose the war candidate.
“We ought to debate it. We will debate it,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum. “There is no more important issue for a president than the issue of war and peace. It’s the inescapable issue.”
But that means details. And it’s fair to wonder how the Democrats’ current plans—little debated in front of a solidly antiwar primary electorate and rarely examined, thanks to a never-ending supply of Geraldine Ferraros and Jeremiah Wrights and Sinbads—will hold up. (For the record: Mrs. Clinton advocates an open-ended withdrawal process starting in 60 days; Mr. Obama has called for a troop reduction effort starting immediately and ending in roughly 16 months.)
As unappealing as Mr. McCain’s Iraq plan may be—a long-term commitment of troops in the pursuit of an unrealistically defined “victory”—his strategy does have the advantage of being easy to explain: Succeed at all costs.
The Democratic nominee, by contrast, will be able to talk about bringing the troops home, but will also have to explain why Iraqi political progress will be facilitated by less security; why the prospect of a greater number of Iraqi civilian deaths is acceptable; and why, at least if the candidates are to be taken at their word, the realities on the ground in Baghdad, Basra and Sadr City will have little bearing on their withdrawal policies.
“In 2006, Democrats were able to say we need to get out of Iraq, and it was a seemingly self-evident proposition to a lot of people,” said Andrei Cherny, editor of the foreign policy journal Democracy. “The situation right now is more murky, which means that whoever the nominee is is actually going to have to make an argument about why it’s in America’s interests and in the interests of Iraq for us to leave.”
That argument has the potential to become more complicated, and not less, over the next six months.
By November, Iraq could be fighting a formal civil war. But it could also see more of the gradual stabilization and snail-paced political progress happening now. And if that’s the case, the Democrats will have a choice between reversing their calls for withdrawal or, more likely, arguing that the progress hasn’t been sufficient to justify continuing the sacrifice.
The best-case scenario on the ground, Iraq experts say, is that Moktada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi army and the Iraqi government sign and stick to a ceasefire in Baghdad. In Anbar, former Sunni insurgents would keep cooperating with the United States and would use the American-supplied arms and resources to put down Al Qaeda in Iraq. Reconciliation would begin to occur at the local level in the provinces, eventually leading to safe elections, effective oil distribution laws, diminished Iranian influence, a return of refugees and a functioning, centralized government.
More probable is that violence spikes intermittently as it did this week, or that elections planned for the fall cause more turbulence in the security situation. Legislative progress will be halting and frustrating. But on the whole, security gains hold and create space for political progress, like this month’s amnesty initiative to get Sunnis back into the government.
“In all likelihood, things will be same as they are now,” said Rand Beers, former national security adviser to the presidential campaign of John Kerry.
And then of course, things can get worse.
“I can imagine more deterioration easier than I can imagine new, brilliant progress,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has expressed measured optimism about the stabilization of Iraq.
Can the Democrats be prepared to withdraw under any of these circumstances?
For now, they say, the answer is yes.
“Nothing is risk-free,” said Lee Feinstein, the national security director for the Clinton campaign, about the potential for chaos and violence if Americans leave. “But the risks of an indefinite blank check to Iraq are clear.”
“Obviously, we have concern for the situation in Iraq,” said Susan Rice, a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Obama. “But to take that logic to its extreme, we would stay there indefinitely till there is ‘kumbaya.’ We can’t physically do that. It’s impossible.”
Both campaigns argue that the promise of withdrawal is the only real leverage that the United States can exert on Iraqis to make political progress happen, and that a sustained presence will strain the military and distract from national security priorities in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.