There are sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats about Iraq and Iran, both in rhetoric and commitments to troop levels. The Giuliani/Podhoretz axis of the Republican Party, for example, demands military “victory” and, in the case of the neoconservative godfather who advises Giuliani, “prays” for war with Iran. With their close ties to Cheney, they will be a factor no matter who the Republican nominee turns out to be.
But Democratic front-runners shouldn’t get away with five-year troop withdrawal plans. Peace activists and the media need to ask tough questions of them in the next month, during the window for democratic questioning that is relatively open in the early small-state primaries.
The questions that should be put are these: Are the top Democratic candidates pledging to withdraw all American troops by a date certain? Or do they intend to draw down only American combat troops, lessening American casualties while turning to a counterinsurgency strategy, as in South Vietnam in the 1960s, Central America in the ’70s or Afghanistan today?
As I recently wrote in The Nation, none of the front-runners plan to withdraw all American troops in fewer than five years. Responding to incessant pressures from the grassroots, they have various plans to withdraw combat troops (Barack Obama recently said it would take sixteen months from the date of his inauguration, which would mean July 2010). But all of them would leave thousands of American trainers in place, as well as Special Forces units to combat Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia (which the media keep hypnotically describing as a group of Iraqi terrorists under unnamed foreign leadership). Hillary Clinton adds the role of combating terrorism more generically, and John Edwards would keep US troops on the ground to stave off “genocide.”
In addition, all the front-runners insist on the passage of an Iraqi petroleum law, which is described benignly as a revenue-sharing measure, but never as one that permits the re-entry of American and British oil companies into Iraq with sweetheart contracts.
The impact of these policies will be to draw a defining partisan difference with the Republicans during the 2008 election, then drastically reduce public interest and press coverage of the ongoing war during the term of the next President.
But there are serious differences within the Democratic establishment over these policies, differences rarely noted in the media or public discussions. The most mainstream liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, headed by Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, John Podesta, strongly advocates for a one-year withdrawal of all American troops. CAP warns against the strategic problems of leaving American advisers in the cross-fire of sectarian strife, and of the moral quagmire of aiding and abetting a Baghdad regime that, by any measure, is a chronic human rights abuser. CAP asserts that funding and arming the Baghdad regime, in particular its Interior Ministry, is in violation of the 1997 Leahy Amendment. In taking these strong positions, Podesta has defined himself as a far stronger and more progressive peace advocate than even the former President and would-be President he once served. On October 11, Podesta’s team issued a memo critical of what they called “strategic drift” among the front-running Democrats and their national security advisers.