In the aftermath of General David Petraeus' stay-the-course presentation to Congress and as George W. Bush prepared yet another major speech-to-the-nation on Iraq, the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates each tried to position him- or herself as the potential commander in chief most in favor of removing U.S. troops from Iraq. But in doing so, can any of them score political points?
During Petraeus' multiple appearances on Capitol Hill, neither Senator Hillary Clinton nor Senator Barack Obama stood out when legislators questioned the Bush administration's pitchman for the war. When Obama and Clinton had their chances, each speechified against the war, without being too tough on Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. But Clinton did toss more pointed queries at the pair than did Obama. Given the hype surrounding Petraeus's congressional testimony, Obama missed a chance to outshine Clinton as the Democrat best able to take on Bush's war. (Judge for yourself. See Clinton's performance here  and Obama's here .)
But soon after Petraeus had withdrawn from the Hill, Obama and Clinton renewed the fierce competition over their antiwar bona fides. On Wednesday, Obama delivered a speech in Clinton, Iowa, in which he "unveiled" (as his campaign put it) a "comprehensive plan to turn the page in Iraq."
This plan essentially reiterates what Obama has been proposing since early this year: a phased withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. In January, he introduced legislation to start a pullout with a goal of redeploying all U.S. combat brigades by March 31, 2008. In his Clinton speech, Obama proposed the immediate withdrawal of combat troops at the pace of one or two brigades a month. That would lead to the complete removal of combat forces by the end of next year. Under the Petraeus plan, which Bush backs, U.S. troop levels are projected to be about 130,000 by next summer (the pre-surge level), with no guarantee of any decrease after that.
Though Hillary Clinton has vowed to extricate the United States from Iraq should she be elected president, she has not been as specific in proposing a date or schedule for the drawdown of troops. In July--in a speech in Des Moines--she released her Iraq plan "to end our military engagement in Iraq's civil war and immediately start bringing our troops home." One of her "first official actions" as president, she said, would be to direct the Pentagon and the National Security Council to create within the first two months of her administration a "clear, viable plan" to bring U.S. troops home. Like Obama, she called for a quick start to disengagement. Unlike Obama, she has not offered a target date for the completion of a withdrawal.
Both candidates have proposed new diplomatic and humanitarian assistance efforts in Iraq. Clinton wants to appoint a high-level U.N. representative to help broker peace among the factions there. Obama says he would call for a new constitutional convention in Iraq, convened under the auspices of the U.N., which would not adjourn until a new accord on national reconciliation is reached. (Send out for the mattresses!) But of the pair, only Obama can cite--as he did on Wednesday in Clinton, Iowa--a pace and a deadline for removing combat troops. His message could be (though he didn't say so): if elected president, I won't need to wait 60 days before coming up with a disengagement schedule.
The Obama camp is not making much of this difference. After his Clinton, Iowa, speech, two of his key foreign policy advisers--Samantha Powers and Sarah Sewell--spoke to bloggers in a conference call. I asked them how Obama's Iraq policy differed from those of other leading Democratic contenders, including a certain senator from New York. Neither raised the issue of troop withdrawals. Instead, they noted Obama's ideas for dealing with Iraqi refugees in and out of Iraq. He proposes providing financial assistance not just to the United Nations but to countries neighboring Iraq. While important, that part of Obama's speech did not come across as a candidacy-defining policy that separates him from the others.
Not to be left in any dust in the post-Petraeus phase, the Clinton campaign, about the time Obama was speaking in Iowa, zapped out an email to the media noting that Hillary Clinton had just sent a letter to Bush demanding that he "greatly accelerate the redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq, and to bring so many troops home so much faster." In the letter, she did not refer to any target date for the completion of a troop drawdown. So between Clinton and Obama, the Illinois senator still has the more specific disengagement proposal.
But as Obama was speaking and Clinton was writing the president, former Senator John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat fighting to stay close to Clinton and Obama in the polls, released a statement calling for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops "to jump-start the comprehensive political solution that will end the violence in Iraq and will allow a complete withdrawal of all combat troops within 9 to 10 months." He blasted Obama for suggesting a slower pullout that would "essentially mimic the president's own plan to withdraw 30,000 troops by next summer." He called on Obama, Clinton and other lawmakers "to use every tool available to them, including a filibuster, to force the president to change course."
While the top-three Democratic presidential wannabes each advocate removing troops from Iraq, the question (at least, politically) is whether the differences in their positions will matter to any Democratic voters. Obama's plan for Iraq--as described in his Wednesday speech--does not resonate much more than Hillary Clinton's. And Edward's end-it-in-ten-months proposal shaves off only a few months from Obama's suggested timeline. Moreover, such details may not be relevant, considering that none of these folks would be able to implement any policy until 16 months from now. By then, the ground reality in Iraq could dictate a different response.
Still, this is what candidates do: propose future policies based on present situations that could well change. And they maneuver for political position. All of this, though, favors the front-running Clinton. Once upon a time Obama opposed the Iraq war and Clinton (as did Edwards) voted to let Bush start it. This week, there was little in Obama's speech that would not--or could not--appear in a Clinton speech (though Obama's advisers might argue otherwise). Until Obama delivers a speech that Clinton cannot deliver--on Iraq or any other major topic--he will have a tough time portraying himself as a necessary alternative to the leader of the pack.
The war, no doubt, is the issue Democratic voters care most about. And Washington Democrats are about to enter into another difficult period, during which they will have to figure out how to respond to Bush and Petraeus, as additional funding for the war comes up for a vote in the Democratically-controlled Congress. While that occurs, Obama and Edwards each will face a challenge of his own: convincing Democratic voters that his ideas about what to do next in Iraq set him apart from the front-runner and render him a better pick.
CHECK OUT David Corn's recent interview with the anticorruption chief of the Iraqi government who was forced out of his job by Prime Minister Maliki and who claims the Maliki regime is so corrupt it ought to be abolished. Click here .
OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR  by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here .