Judging by the answers given by Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday night to the question of whether there will still be troops in Iraq in 2013 following the first term, it seems certain that the mission will continue in one form or another Bush or no Bush.
The enormity of the military conflict in Iraq was spelled out in the simplest of all admissions tonight:
Among all of the leading Democratic candidates for president, none was willing to commit to a promise in a campaign debate that all of the U.S. combat forces deployed in Iraq will be gone by 2013, the end of the next president's term in office.
"It's hard to project four years from now," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, at the start of a debate of the Democratic candidates in Hanover, N.H.
""It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has vowed that if President Bush has not ended the war in Iraq by the time the next president takes office, "I will.''
""I cannot make that commitment," said former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, answering the question posed in a televised debate in the state that will hold the first of the presidential primary elections in January.
A.B. Stoddard writing for The Hill's Pundit's Blog sums up the Democrat's dilemma nicely:
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.) made the promise Clinton, Edwards and Obama - with all their nuance - could not: to pull out all troops in his first term as president. But we know not what "counterterrorism activities" will consist of in six months, let alone six years. How do we define what is a continuation of this war? We simply cannot know what sectarian violence, al Qaeda-perpetrated violence or other Iranian-influenced violence will be consuming Iraq at that point, so none of the likely Democratic nominees can say for certain - not Clinton, not Obama, not Edwards - that they would have ended our war in Iraq by 2013.
I am not saying I disagree with anything Obama, Clinton and Edwards are saying. It's just been a bit tiring to hear them beat that "end the war" drum all across the country when even they don't know what that means.
When pressed to the wall, the Democratic candidates demonstrated that despite all the tough talk about withdrawing from Iraq, they are as much a hostage to events there as the President. Like the Republicans, they are well and truly stuck with Bush's policies, the Maliki government, al-Sadr's plotting, and the rest of the crummy situation that will continue to exist for the foreseeable future in Iraq.
There is no going back or getting out quickly. And the Democratic candidates, at the risk of riling up their rabid, anti-war base (and recognizing the facts of life on Iraq all along despite rhetoric to the contrary) are responsible enough and practical enough to see that there is no briar patch nearby where this tar baby can be shed.
The frustration of the base with the Democratic performance in Congress on the war is now boiling over. This piece in Politico today gives voice to many who simply can't understand the reluctance of Democrats to take on a wildly unpopular President and a very unpopular war:
But it's a simple truth, whether you support the war or not: There is a lot more Democrats could do to change, or at least challenge, the politics of the war in Washington, even if they do not have the numbers to impose new policies on President Bush.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) could force a vote a day over Iraq. She could keep the House in session all night, over weekends and through planned vacations.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could let filibusters run from now till Christmas rather than yield to pro-war Republicans.
Such tactics might or might not be politically sensible, but in their absence, anti-war lawmakers can hardly say they have done everything possible to challenge the war and bring attention to their cause.
This is the voice of frustration, not rationality. For all the Democrats bluster about ending the war and bringing the troops home, there is a very good practical political reason why holding their colleague's feet to the fire simply won't work; the public's own ambivalence about how they view the war and how they want it to end.
The latest Gallup Poll on Iraq shows about what you'd expect: By a large plurality the people think we should establish a timetable to bring the troops home. A large majority believes that Bush has made a hash of the war and that things are not going well - although the number of Americans now believing that the United States will accomplish its goals in Iraq in the long run has been inching up since early in the year to where it is now at 35%,.
But the real ambivalence of the public shows up in the numbers regarding troop reduction and the timetable for withdrawal. Only 18% want the troops to come home immediately, the de facto position of the netroots and Moveon.Org while 38% want the troops to stay "until the situation gets better." A plurality (41%) wish to see a timetable for gradual withdrawal - which now mirrors the Bush-Petreaus goal of removing troops slowly although the poll indicates a plurality wishing to see this occur over the course of a year's time.
What about Petreaus's plan for pulling troops out of Iraq? Again, a plurality is with the President with 43% believing the number proposed by Petreaus is the "Right Amount" while 36% feel that too few troops are being withdrawn.
I thought that Gallup's summary of this poll was particularly apt:
The war is an extremely high-priority issue for Americans and is likely to be one of the top issues in next year's election. Americans are divided on the war, along partisan lines, but on most measures a majority say that the war was a mistake and not worth the costs. Despite sentiment that the war is not going well for the United States, only about one in five favors an immediate withdrawal of troops. Most do support a gradual withdrawal of troops, preferably within a year, and a majority supports a congressionally mandated timetable.
What the poll doesn't show but what Democratic politicians have always known is that the "timetable" for withdrawal has been a sham from the beginning. A close look at most of the timetable plans would show a long list of caveats and exceptions that would allow Petreaus or Bush to toss the timetable in the garbage in the event that the situation in Iraq didn't warrant the mandated troop reductions.
This, of course, was the plan all along; trap the President into making it appear that the Democrats wanted to end the war while Republicans were for continuing it. This is the true significance of the admissions made by the top Democratic candidates on Wednesday night. In the event a timetable was imposed on them, they too would be forced to deal with the situation as it is on the ground in Iraq rather than give in to the wishes of their base and bring the troops home without regard to the interests of Iraq or the United States.
It is not too early to say that unless there are truly dramatic changes in Iraq by election day, the war will be an albatross around the neck of GOP incumbents, likely to drag many of them down to defeat in November, 2008. But for the Democratic candidate for President whoever he or she will be, that will be cold comfort if, after winning the election, they are forced to stand in President Bush's shoes and deal with the situation in Iraq as it is and not as their anti-war base wish it would be.Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.