On Iraq: A Time To Lead


It is time for decision on the Iraq debacle. The White House is demanding more money to keep the troops in Iraq. The Bush folks have shown their public relations mastery by rolling out a disingenuous campaign to claim "progress" on the ground in Iraq. General David Petraeus, the political general with a notorious record of trumpeting mythical success in Iraq, will seek to retain as many troops in action as he thinks the Army can sustain without disintegrating.

For the moment, Republicans appear to have made the political calculation that they have no choice but to stand with the purblind president and his general. Their leading presidential candidates have toed the line. Their vulnerable senators are keeping their heads down. Their zealots have been effusive about the supposed progress wrought by the "surge" in Iraq. Democrats in the Congress are signaling pre-emptive retreat. There's talk about a bipartisan resolution that requires the president to start taking some troops out early next year, but imposes no exit date. This is a recipe for continued occupation, which will squander more lives and resources while bolstering al Qaeda's recruitment across the world. Antiwar activists are mobilizing both against Republicans who should be leading the way out of Iraq and against Democrats who are backsliding. There's talk about supporting primary opponents against those who disappoint.

What's missing from this picture? The Democratic candidates for president have not yet been heard from. In the run-up to the last showdown with the president, former Senator John Edwards called on the Congress to end the war and mobilized his supporters to push the Congress to stand up. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama said little, and did not even reveal how they would vote until the last moment. That won't work this time.

It is time to lead. The person who hopes to capture the Democratic presidential nomination should demonstrate clarity in opposing the war, commitment to bringing the troops home, and capacity to lead. It is time not simply to stand and be counted; it is time to lead colleagues who are faltering and to put Republicans on notice that this time, the Democratic nominee means what he or she says.

Leadership by the presidential candidates can rally congressional Democrats while putting conflicted Republican senators on notice that there will be a big price to pay in continuing to support the worst foreign policy debacle in our nation's history.

Leadership in this debate is a central criterion for the nomination, far more important than how a candidate looks in the debates or how much money the campaign raises. Any Democratic nominee will face a pro-war Republican who will charge the Democrats with weakness and with cutting and running. The Democratic flag-bearer will have to make a compelling case to the American people about why this misbegotten occupation must be brought to an end. If a candidate for the nomination doesn't stand up now, then he or she can't be expected to stand up then.

If the candidate can't rally his or her colleagues now, then little can be expected in the campaign. If a Democratic contender can't enlist the support of worried Republicans stranded with a most unpopular president in support of a most unpopular war, then any claim that he or she knows how to get things done or can usher in a new era of change is called into question. Democrats universally want to nominate a candidate who can win. But no Democrat can win unless they can carry the argument against the fiasco in Iraq to the American people. Over the next weeks, we will find out just who is up to that mission and who is not. It is time to lead.

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