The Candidates on Iraq

The Candidates on Iraq

What would you do now in Iraq? is the question confronting the Democratic presidential candidates.


What would you do now in Iraq? is the question confronting the Democratic presidential candidates. Some of the wannabes (Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and, in part, John Kerry) supported George W. Bush’s move toward war; some did not (Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun). But they have to deal–at least hypothetically–with the situation Bush created. They all say they would handle postwar Iraq much differently from Bush. All want to remove the Made in America label from the occupation and bring in troops from other nations to replace or augment US soldiers. Some are keener on the United Nations than others. Some refer to a possible need for more troops in the short run. Not one advocates a withdrawal without a handoff. But only a few candidates have gone beyond generalities to offer specific proposals.

Dean, the front-runner, and all in the pack advocate transferring control of the civilian occupation and reconstruction effort to an international body, with most naming the UN. This, they maintain, would be a prelude to persuading other nations to send in troops and money. “We just can’t cut and run,” Dean argues. “We need to bring troops from Arabic-speaking nations in so this is an international reconstruction and not an American occupation.” Kerry calls for going “to the UN completely.” He would then ask the UN to authorize a “multinational force under US command.”

The presumption they generally share is that the UN would be willing to assume the task, that it can do the job and that other nations would be inclined to send troops not only for peacekeeping but perhaps also for the more brutal mission of counterinsurgency. Are these valid presumptions? Even as Carol Moseley Braun calls for internationalizing the military operation in Iraq, she notes that “the United Nations won’t put troops on the ground there because it’s too dangerous.” John Edwards argues that if the United States were to yield civilian control, it would “create the kind of energy we need to bring allies and friends to this effort, to help relieve the burden on American troops, relieve the burden on American taxpayers.” He has called for “help from NATO,” an independent commission to oversee reconstruction contracts (so there are no sweetheart deals for US firms) and “specific timetables” to transfer political authority to Iraqis.

Only Lieberman and Clark have suggested that more US troops might be required. In September, Lieberman, who a year ago called for an international force in Iraq, said, “I would send more troops, because the troops that are there need that protection. And we need some of the specialized services that will help Iraqis gain control of their country and [that will] mean that sooner American troops could come home.” He also has proposed that after civilian administration of Iraq is passed to the UN, the occupation be led by “a qualified Arab official.”

Clark has offered the most specific road map for Iraq. He advocates creating a new multilateral organization that would administer the occupation and be headed by a non-American. He does not want to pass the buck to the UN. “It is simply unrealistic,” he says, “to have the United Nations take over this daunting task–it’s not able and it’s not willing.” He would assign military responsibilities to NATO, and have NATO–under US military command–report to this new council. “With US command, NATO authority and UN endorsement,” he asserts, “other NATO countries would send troops, and Arab countries would also step in.” He envisions the possible need for more troops, including special forces that can “strike hard” against the insurgents. But he would like to see an overall reduction in US troops, with other nations making up the difference. “An increase [in troops],” he notes, “doesn’t mean you’re failing.” In addition, Clark has called for firing Paul Bremer, the head of the US occupying authority, and for empowering regional councils to name an interim government in order to achieve a faster transition to Iraqi autonomy.

Kucinich, whose slogan has been “UN in and the US out,” has boasted that he, too, has a full-fledged proposal to deal with Iraq. Once the UN is in charge, he says, member nations would “commit troops to enable the rotation of UN troops into Iraq and the rotation of US troops out of Iraq.” In October he declared, “My plan, if immediately brought to the UN, would enable our troops to be home by the beginning of the New Year.” But can the UN, which has cut back on its operations in Iraq, handle the ongoing insurgency? David Swanson, Kucinich’s press secretary, says, “We don’t know that the UN won’t take this on until we ask.” And, he adds, “the US is seen as a unilateral occupier. When that ends, a lot of the insurgency ends.”

Maybe. In any event, the call from the Democrats to internationalize the occupation runs contrary to the Bush Administration’s plan, which focuses more on establishing Iraqi security forces (which might one day replace US troops) than on coaxing other nations to send troops. But as each week passes with the Administration going it (mostly) alone and the insurgency appearing to intensify, the proposed alternatives from the Democratic candidates seem less possible, if perhaps more necessary. “We have to form an international coalition to get it done,” says Gephardt, for example. Yet with new suicide blasts and rocket-propelled-grenade attacks, there is less immediate incentive for other nations to bail America out. As an Edwards aide notes, “It’s frustrating–a candidate can only think about this stuff and talk about it, and you can’t do anything about it.”

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