The Republicans, led by George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and their hard-core neoconservative hit squads, have spent millions on television messages supporting the military surge in Iraq. They mounted a major campaign to demonize MoveOn.org in order to derail the group’s proven ability to raise funds for antiwar messages and Democratic candidates. During the election year, pro-war Republicans are poised to promote staying the course in Iraq while threatening or even instigating a war on Iran. The Democrats will have to respond with more than an echo.
But at this point the leading Democratic contenders are reluctant to say they would pull out all the troops from a war they claim to oppose. In sharp contrast to Republicans, Democrats at least support withdrawing most or all American combat troops on a twelve- to eighteen-month deadline. Asked for exact timelines, however, the top contenders indicate that they would put off the withdrawal of all troops until sometime in their second term. The platform of “out by 2013” may be a sufficient difference from the Republicans for some, but it won’t satisfy the most committed antiwar voters. Asked about the five-year estimate, Senator Hillary Clinton’s spokesman on Iraq policy, Philippe Reines, expressed surprise, but his formulation of her views did not conflict with the idea of a long US presence: that she wants substantial troop reductions starting immediately, without a deadline for completion, and with a smaller American force left behind dedicated to training Iraqis and counter-terrorism.
“It’s beginning to feel like 2004,” says one Washington insider at the Center for American Progress, a think tank led by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta. CAP issued a key memo on October 31 complaining about a “strategic drift” setting in among security strategists and the Democratic leaders they advise. The schizophrenia consists of wanting to end the war as painlessly as possible while running away from their anti-Vietnam past. In the triangulating phrase of Barack Obama, one can’t be seen as a “Tom Hayden Democrat” on Iraq.
The leading Democratic contenders buy the line of a more hawkish think tank, the Center for a New American Security, a mostly Democratic cast of auditioning future national security advisers. They propose the gradual, multiyear withdrawal of combat troops and an increase in the number of Special Forces and trainers, who are somehow supposed to train the Iraqi army and chase Al Qaeda from Iraq. A similar proposal was made at the beginning of this year by the Iraq Study Group, based on a December 2006 report. The dangerous, even irrational, assumption of this thinking is that a small number of American trainers and Special Forces can accomplish what 160,000 troops have failed to do.
Nevertheless, the proposal has understandable appeal. Bush plans to withdraw 25,000 to 30,000 troops this spring to salvage an army at the breaking point. If the next President withdraws another 75,000 troops in 2009, the peace movement will face the challenge of opposing a war that appears to be slowly ending. Iraq would then likely evolve into either an Algerian- or Salvadoran-style dirty war or tumble toward a South Vietnam-style fiasco with American advisers trapped in the cross-fire. But it would be mostly invisible until the endgame if managed successfully, with American casualties declining in a low-profile war.