Only One Top Dem Will End Iraq Occupation

According to the National Journal, the Democratic candidates' "disputes over issues have almost completely evaporated in the campaign's final days." The leading Dems, according to the Journal, are beating each other up over who has the most effective "leadership style" or similar abstractions. The notion that the top candidates are virtually identical on the issues and vary only in "tone" -- with Clinton the voice of experience and pragmatism, Obama the feel-good "uniter" who can heal a divided country and John Edwards the aggressive economic populist -- has become, to some degree, the conventional wisdom of campaign 2008.

But, as is often the case, it's also simply wrong.

While it's true that the big three have similar stances on a number of issues, on Iraq -- the one that Democrats and swing voters say is either their top concern, or No. 2 after the economy -- the top candidates' differences couldn't be more significant. In fact, only John Edwards among the top three Dems would effectively end the occupation of Iraq within a year of taking office.

All three top candidates certainly sound like they'd end it. In a Sept. 26 debate, Barack Obama said that if elected, "the first thing" he would do is "initiate a phased redeployment." "Military personnel," he continued, "indicate we can get one brigade to two brigades out per month. I would immediately begin that process. We would get combat troops out of Iraq."

Hillary Clinton also says she favors ending the war in Iraq, "not next year, not next month -- but today." The right strategy in Iraq, she said, is to "start bringing home America's troops now." Just like Barack Obama, "one of Hillary's first official actions" in office, according to her campaign website, would be "to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her secretary of defense, and her National Security Council" and "direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting" within the first 60 days after her inauguration.

Sadly, both candidates are trying to get away with a bit of sleight-of-hand: Both are attempting to confuse a troop draw-down (or, in Clinton's case, appointing a commission to plan one) with an end to the occupation of Iraq. In reality, the two are as different as night and day.

Both Clinton and Obama have bought into the dangerous idea that the U.S. must maintain forces in Iraq to protect U.S. bases -- yes, they're actually saying that we need to leave soldiers to guard the bases that the U.S. built to house the troops occupying Iraq -- to fight "al Qaeda in Iraq," and to help train Iraqi forces. Obama has said that he envisions a less expansive mission than Clinton does, and would contemplate basing some of his "residual forces" outside the country. Both of the candidates are reluctant to say exactly how many troops would be needed to accomplish the job, but independent estimates range from at least 20,000 to as many as 75,000 soldiers. John Edwards stated the obvious when he told the New York Times: "To me, that is a continuation of the occupation of Iraq."

Only two candidates have proposed a complete pullout of U.S. troops: Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. But John Edwards has come very close to their position, saying that he'd only train Iraqi troops outside of Iraq and leave no troops to "guard U.S. bases." And, while he'd keep a rapid-response force in the region, it too would remain outside the country's borders. Unlike Obama and Clinton, he's put a hard number on what he thinks is necessary to keep in-country -- only a single "brigade of 3,500 to 5,000 troops to protect the embassy and possibly a few hundred troops to guard humanitarian workers." He'd pull the rest out within ten months.

Both Clinton and Obama have refused to commit to ending the "mission" before 2013. It's not about training Iraqi troops; it's about the two trying to win an election while continuing to support a deeply unpopular occupation. "Training" security forces doesn't require more than ten years to complete, and it's only the presence of U.S. troops on Iraq's soil that allows "Al Qaeda in Iraq" to operate in the first place. It's a simple matter of two candidates who want to have their cake and eat it too, and for the most part the commercial media's helped obscure that crucial fact.

Clinton and Obama's camps would deny that they favor continuing the "war" in Iraq, but that debate is irrelevant. Nothing could matter less than whether American politicians believe leaving a "residual force" of several tens of thousands of U.S. troops is a continuation of the military occupation or not.

Only Iraqis' opinions matter, because it's Iraqis who make up the insurgency and because all insurgencies require some support from the communities in which they operate. Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, has polled Iraqis repeatedly since 2004. He told me recently that "more than three-quarters of those Iraqis we polled believe the U.S. plans to establish permanent bases in Iraq," and "it appears that view is closely related to support for attacks on U.S. troops." In fact, he said, "among those who believe the U.S. will withdraw, just 34 percent favor attacks against U.S. troops, but among those who believe the U.S. will not withdraw, 68 percent favor attacking coalition forces."

In other words, talk of a long-term presence in Iraq "emboldens extremists" and gets people killed. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say they'd withdraw all "combat troops" from Iraq, but the truth is that they've aligned themselves with the Bush administration's plan for an enduring, relatively large-scale military presence in the country for the foreseeable future.

One hopes Iowans grasp that there's a lot more separating the leading Dems than just "tone."

Note: A correction was made to this article after publication.

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