Democrats divided over when to withdraw

August 30, 2005|By Derek Chollet

WASHINGTON - The debate over what to do about Iraq, with August being one of the bloodiest months for U.S. forces since the invasion nearly 2 1/2 years ago, has reached new heights.

President Bush is under intense pressure from media criticism and an energized antiwar movement inspired by military mom Cindy Sheehan. His poll numbers are dropping, and his vaunted message machine has suffered a rare setback.

Yet much of the talk among Washington insiders is about the disarray within the Democratic Party, whose leaders are blamed for failing to present a unified opposition or not offering clear alternatives to the mess in Iraq. Circular firing squads are an unfortunate tradition in Democratic Party politics, but the criticisms nevertheless are solid: The Democrats aren't unified and can't agree on a way forward.

Some of this reflects classic divisions between hawks and doves inside the party that have existed since Vietnam and have been present throughout the Iraq conflict. The disarray also reflects the disputes about the political impact of one position over another and the fear that Democrats would appear to be weak whichever course they took, whether by not criticizing a failing war or by calling for withdrawal. But a major reason for the discord is that Iraq's future revolves around questions for which there are no consensus answers. Does the U.S. presence in Iraq fuel the insurgency? What kind of message would a withdrawal timetable send? What help could the United States expect from the fledgling Iraqi security forces or the international community? What are the diplomatic and security consequences of staying the course vs. precipitous withdrawal? Neither party leaders nor policy experts can agree.

Life will get easier politically for the Democrats if the Bush team defiantly sticks to its current policy, the political process in Iraq stalls, the insurgency rages on and there's no sign the troops are coming home. But it's always a bad idea to hinge political fortunes to American failures. And there are signs that the Bush team is preparing to change its approach.

Here's the likely scenario: After this fall's elections in Iraq, the United States will start to get out, slowly but surely. That's why the administration pushed so hard for the Iraqis to meet the deadlines for creating a constitution. It wants to be able to say that the benchmarks have been met, Iraqi troops are being trained and now is the time for the United States to turn things over to the legitimate, elected Iraqi government that is asking us to leave.

The administration will argue that if things get a little ugly in the U.S. wake, so be it. We gave it our best shot, it's their country and now it's time for them to handle it. As Mr. Bush has said repeatedly, as the Iraqis "stand up, we'll stand down." His recent rhetoric about seeing the mission through will enable him to start to scale back from a position of strength.

This surely is driven by politics. The American people are clamoring for our troops to get out, and the Bush administration obviously sees that. But an even bigger reason is military necessity. It's difficult to find a military expert who believes that the United States can sustain the current pace of deployments in Iraq much longer without breaking the all-volunteer force; the Pentagon sees this, too.

The top military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., has signaled that troops can start leaving next year. And if, in the meantime, we are faced with another military contingency - North Korea, Iran, Taiwan or another major terrorist attack - we'll need the troops from Iraq even more rapidly. So if we have to get out, the administration wants to lower the bar and create a scenario to declare, well, "mission accomplished."

This is why - politically speaking for the Democrats - the days ahead may not be easier. If a slow but steady withdrawal becomes the new status quo, progressives will be split between two factions.

The get-out-of-Iraq-now faction will claim that U.S. troops are not leaving fast enough. The complete-the-mission faction will agree with leaders such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware (and Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona) that we need to stay in Iraq and even boost our troop strength to get the job done right.

The political danger for the Democrats is that this would leave the Republicans holding the "sensible" middle ground - the phased withdrawal - alone.

Rather than further fuel the blame game, Democrats should get ready for this new reality.

Derek Chollet, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was a senior foreign policy adviser to the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

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