Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Troops out," and then what?

Further thoughts on the CNN-YouTube Democratic debate:

As I mentioned in passing several days ago, the '08 Democratic presidential hopefuls have generally failed thus far to tell Americans how they would responsibly manage the difficult logistics of a massive withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Perhaps, in the wooing of liberal primary voters, it's sufficient to simply say "troops out" by a date certain. (Bill Richardson, during the YouTube debate: "I believe we should bring all the troops home by the end of this year, in six months, with no residual forces -- no residual forces.") But ultimately, in the wooing of swing-voting independents, it will be necessary for Democrats to ensure that their national security credentials are in order - by making it clear that they're thinking long term about how to best secure the region in the wake of a major U.S. military drawdown.

The YouTube debate on Monday night was another missed opportunity. At one point, a citizen questioner asked the big question: "Don’t you think if we pulled out now, that would open it up for Iran and Syria, God knows who -- Russia -- how do we pull out now? And isn’t it our responsibility to get these people up on their feet? I mean, do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself? How do we pull out now?"

Barack Obama responded not by talking about 2007 and beyond, but by harkening back to 2002 (when he opposed the war before it began). Then he offered a nice sound bite - "I think we can be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in" - without offering any details. Then he condemned the Iraqi parliament for going on vacation in August. Then he said that a troop pullout should be accompanied by a "diplomatic surge," but again offered no details.

Joe Biden, who at least has floated a post-withdrawal plan for Iraq's political future, riffed quickly on his main points about decentralizing the Iraqi government and setting up separate ethnic jurisdictions. (In that sense, he gave the best answer.) He was followed moments later by Hillary Clinton, who, rather than detailing any of her ideas for post-withdrawal Iraq, contented herself with assailing the President Bush's Pentagon for not adequately developing its own ideas ("there are a lot of questions that we’re asking, but we’re not getting answers"). Then, shortly thereafter, Chris Dodd offered a few general principles - redeploy the troops, "robustly" pursue diplomacy, develop a program "that allows us to become much more engaged in the region" - but nothing else.

In fairness to some of these candidates, it should be noted that the debate format continues to defeat them. The stage is way too crowded (thanks to the presence of people who haven't the remotest chance of getting elected), and therefore the available time to respond in detail is severely limited.

But maybe, even with more time, these Democrats would still be taking refuge in generalities. I sense that such a posture won't suffice in the long run. Many Americans who back troop withdrawal are nevertheless concerned about what would happen in Iraq and the region when we leave. Swing voters will want specifics on how the Democrats would minimize resulting bloodshed and, at the very least, how Democrats would protect our broader security interests.

Will Marshall, a moderate Democrat and prominent Washington policy wonk, has effectively framed the stakes in a new piece posted online. He writes:

"Democrats are right to argue that the United States should start moving its major combat forces out of the country. But since we don’t know how that will affect Iraq’s civil strife, we need to pull out gradually and keep the worst from happening.
Specifically, we should redefine our military mission in Iraq as enforcing three 'noes' that are essential to protecting America’s strategic interests — no safe havens for al Qaeda, no genocide, and no wider regional war. This happens to be the position of most Democratic Congressional leaders and presidential candidates. Given the central role national security will play in next year’s national elections, Democrats would be wise to start emphasizing the longer-range aspects of their Iraq plans."

Later in the piece, he writes: "Too hasty an American departure would likely leave behind a failed state that plunges deeper into sectarian violence and sucks neighboring countries into the maelstrom. All this would add immensely to the prestige of al Qaeda, which would claim credit for having driven the Americans out, just as it claims to have been instrumental in forcing Russia’s exit from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. So instead of promising glibly to stop the war, Democrats should spell out the next phase in what will likely be a prolonged endgame in Iraq."

Marshall basically likes the idea of trimming troops levels to 60,000 in 2008, with full withdrawal by 2012. He argues that this plan "meets the basic demand of war critics: get U.S. troops out of the business of mediating Iraq’s sectarian conflicts and focus those who remain on protecting essential American security interests battling al Qaeda, discouraging intervention by Iraq’s neighbors and preventing genocide."

That kind of timetable might be too slow for the liberal Democratic base. But the liberal Democratic base isn't big enough to deliver the '08 election. Swing voters in search of a credible commander-in-chief will want assurance that, beyond simply pulling out the troops, Democrats are also thinking seriously about the day after.


By the way, there's a new twist in the Pentagon's tiff with Hillary Clinton. As I noted the other day, high-ranking apparatchik Eric Edelman sent her a snarky letter last week accusing her of emboldening the terrorists. She had asked, months ago, for information on the Pentagon's troop withdrawal contingency plans, and received no reply - until Edelman (one of Dick Cheney's former minions) finally told her that a request like hers "reinforces enemy propaganda."

Edleman's boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, assured Hillary late last week the congressional oversight was a good thing. And today, the Associated Press is reporting that Gates has now gone a step further. In a new letter, he tells Hillary that her credentials as a loyal American are still in order:

"I emphatically assure you that we do not claim, suggest, or otherwise believe that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies, nor do we question anyone's motives in this regard."

It wasn't exactly an apology, but no matter. Confessions of error by the Bush war planners are rare indeed. All they managed to do, in the Edelman episode, was to further embolden Hillary Clinton.