Democrats Retreating on Iraq Withdrawal
Ed Morrissey thinks the recent testimony by General David Petraeus has “made it much more difficult for Democrats to argue for withdrawal and defeat. In fact, at last night’s debate, the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination couldn’t even commit to a withdrawal — by 2013.”
The leading Democratic White House hopefuls conceded Wednesday night they cannot guarantee to pull all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of the next presidential term in 2013.
“I think it’s hard to project four years from now,” said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the opening moments of a campaign debate in the nation’s first primary state.
“It is very difficult to know what we’re going to be inheriting,” added Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
“I cannot make that commitment,” said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
Sensing an opening, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson provided the assurances the others would not.
It strikes me as unlikely that Petraeus’ testimony is what’s at issue here. For one thing, the people who will vote in Democratic primaries already have their mind up on this issue and are vehemently opposed to remaining in Iraq. Indeed, most of them are angry at their leadership for not moving further on the issue and a not insignificant number of them agree in substance, if not in style, with the MoveOn ad saying Petraeus is a mere shill for the Bush administration. Further, the polling I’ve seen seems to show that the testimony had little or no effect on public opinion, period.
Still, there’s no doubt that the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are reluctant to give a firm commitment on withdrawing troops from Iraq. The reason, I suspect, is that there’s a vast difference in running for president and running for Congress. Those with a plausible chance of being elected Commander in Chief have much less luxury to be glib and reactionary in their foreign policy pronouncements, since they would actually have to execute those policies upon taking office.
Christopher Dodd and Bill Richardson are serious, honorable men but they’re not going to get elected president and are therefore free to go with their gut and/or pander to the base. Whatever visceral preferences they might have, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are bound by the realities of the situation.
That reality, like it or not, is that there aren’t a lot of good options. (The old age that for every complicated problem there’s a solution that’s simple, easy, and wrong is particularly apt here.) Even if one is persuaded that staying in Iraq exacerbates the situation and/or only prolongs the inevitable, the logistics of withdrawal preclude simply packing up and being out in three months or six months. And no potential president wants to tie his hands on the most important issue of the day sixteen months before they would take office.
For a roundup of other news and reactions to last night’s Democratic debate, see Memeorandum.
UPDATE: Kevin Drum doesn’t think this holds water and offers a simpler explanation: “the major Dems aren’t promising to get out of Iraq because they don’t think it’s a winning position. Even in the Democratic primaries, they don’t think it’s a winning position.”
That could well be the case. The electoral politics of this are almost as convoluted as the strategic calculations.
While I still hold the reluctant conclusion that continuing the fight in Iraq is our least worst strategic option and Kevin thinks continuing is madness, we come to the opposite conclusions on the politics. I’ve believed for months that the war was unsustainable politically and take the polls showing that the public is overwhelmingly tired of the polls seriously. Conversely, mainstream Democrats fear being portrayed as weak on national security will again derail their chances of taking back the White House.
I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but it’s interesting.