In Congress and among the American public, debate is growing over how -- and how soon -- U.S. combat troops can be extricated from the war in Iraq. But among the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, the debate is not only about bringing troops home, but over how many should stay behind.
Despite the public’s increasing desire to wind down the war, the leading Republican candidates for president -- former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- say they still support President Bush’s decision to send additional combat troops to Iraq.
“It is time for Congress to follow the lead of the commanders in the field and the commander in chief,” Romney said last month.
The leading Democratic candidates -- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- oppose Bush’s “surge” in combat troops and advocate a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces. Of the three, only Edwards has called for an immediate withdrawal, and they all back keeping substantial U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region.
“You clearly would have to have some mechanism for containing [the conflict in Iraq] so that this thing doesn’t spill over,” Edwards said in February.
The reason GOP candidates firmly support an increasingly unpopular war is straightforward, political analysts say: A large majority of Republicans who vote in primary elections want to continue the war. In a Times poll last month, 15% of Republicans supported the Democratic-led effort in Congress to impose a timetable for withdrawal. By contrast, about half of independents and three-quarters of Democrats supported the idea.
Among Democratic candidates, the debate has been livelier and more complex. Clinton, who initially supported the war, has called on Bush to change course and begin reducing troop strength in Iraq within 90 days. But she has resisted pressure to set a firm deadline for bringing all combat troops home.
Obama, who initially opposed the war, has proposed withdrawing all combat troops by March 2008. But he added that the withdrawal could be postponed if Iraq made progress on political reforms.
Edwards, who initially supported the war and later declared that a mistake, has proposed the firmest timetable for withdrawal. But he has not said how many troops he would keep in the region.
With some moderate Republicans in Congress now pressing Bush for reductions in troop strength, the Iraq debate will probably shift ground by the time the first caucuses and primary elections are held next year. Nonetheless, it seems certain that the challenges of Iraq -- and of foreign policy in a larger sense -- will remain central in the presidential election.
“A lot of people will be asking what happens to America’s role in the world after this,” said Peter Fenn, a Democratic political consultant who is not affiliated with any of the candidates. “What do we do about a military that has been severely harmed by the war? Who has proposals that deal with strengthening the image of the U.S. abroad? You’re going to see some pretty serious speeches by these candidates about some of that because, unlike other campaigns, foreign policy is still going to be pretty darned important in January.”
Among Democrats, the Iraq debate has moved through several phases.
The first was a squabble over the past -- over who opposed the war in 2002 (Obama), who supported it but later concluded that was a mistake (Edwards), and who supported it and has defended that decision (Clinton, who said her vote was based on bad information).
That debate, Fenn said, put Clinton at odds with the rest of the field as the only major candidate who resisted demands to apologize for her 2002 vote.
More recently, however, the Democrats’ debate has focused on how and when U.S. combat troops should be withdrawn.
Edwards has staked out the sharpest antiwar position, an early and complete withdrawal. That could serve him well in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucus, and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary election. Among active Democrats in both states, antiwar sentiment runs high.
“Democratic primary voters want to see someone who has a strong approach to ending the war,” said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group. In Iowa, he said, Edwards has grabbed first place in several polls.
Obama and Clinton have offered more cautious plans.
Obama, who initially opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal, introduced legislation in January that called for combat troops to leave by March 2008, but as a nonbinding goal.
Clinton -- the most hawkish of the major Democratic candidates -- has chosen not to propose a clear timetable, but has promised to “end the war” if elected. She recently endorsed a bill to revoke the 2002 resolution that authorized the war.
Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy scholar at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, saw a clear motivation in Obama and Clinton resisting the calls from within their party for an immediate troop withdrawal: Whoever wins the Democratic nomination will need to appeal to centrist, independent voters as well as antiwar Democrats.
“The lesson for the past 30 years for Democrats has been that if you don’t prove you’re tough, you don’t make it past the first step,” said Daalder, who supports Obama.
“They are thinking about general elections, not primary elections,” said John Isaacs, an antiwar activist who is head of the Council for a Livable World. “They recognize they have to appeal not only to the primary audience, but also to the general electorate.... It’s a tough balancing act.”
Among the leading Republican candidates, the Iraq debate has been more muted -- a matter of nuances amid strong statements of support for the war effort.
McCain, who long has criticized the Bush administration for not sending enough troops to Iraq, was a vocal supporter of the president’s decision earlier this year to launch the surge of combat troops; McCain was also a scathing critic of Democrats who called for withdrawal.
“We have a new general, a new strategy,” McCain said at a Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley this month. “That strategy can succeed.”
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Bush’s commander in Iraq, is due to deliver a progress report on the troop surge’s effectiveness in early September.
But McCain has opposed calls from moderate Republicans in Congress for a reassessment at that time. “We have to show some progress, obviously,” he said in Iowa last week. “But for us to say the month of September, the month of October, the month of January or any other month is going to be the defining moment is something that I simply don’t agree with.”
Romney has begun sounding a slightly different theme: that the time to evaluate the effects of the surge may come soon. “I think we’re going to know whether this is working in a matter of months, not years,” he has said several times.
But when a Romney spokesman, Kevin Madden, was asked how many months Romney had in mind, he replied: “That will depend on input from the military commanders.... It could be 15 months.”
Giuliani, who has not given a major foreign policy speech, has focused instead on renewing the nation’s determination to fight terrorism around the world.
“America is not about defeat; America is about victory,” he said in a Citadel graduation speech May 5. “The only good defense is a strong offense. Those who counsel defeat, those who advocate that we share with our enemy a timetable of our troop withdrawal, don’t lack patriotism or love of this country. What they lack is a clear vision of what we’re facing to keep us safe.”
The GOP presidential candidates’ dogged support of the war puts them out of step with some leading congressional Republicans, who have warned the White House that their ranks will break unless the surge clearly shows positive results by September.
“This comes down to their individual races,” said Kirk Blalock, a former aide to White House political strategist Karl Rove. “They’re worried about what happened in the last election,” when Democrats took control of the Senate and House, he said.
Republican senators will be running for reelection next year in Minnesota, Maine and New Hampshire, all states where the war is deeply unpopular, Blalock said. “Presidential candidates are running to lead the country as a whole in the war on terror,” he said. “Congressional candidates are more prone to be affected by the mood swings of their constituents.”
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What they’re saying about Iraq
Rudolph W. Giuliani
Opposes a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Says failure of the U.S. effort would lead to a broader regional conflict.
Quote: “Never, ever wave the white flag of defeat in front of those who want to come here and kill you and take away your way of life. Never.”
The Arizona senator voted in 2002 to authorize the war. Backs President Bush’s troop “surge” and advocates making it larger. Has strongly rejected timetables or fixed benchmarks for success.
Quote: “We must win in Iraq. If we withdraw, there will be chaos, there will be genocide, and [terrorists] will follow us home.”
Supports the troop buildup and opposes Democratic plans for a withdrawal timetable. But also says the “surge” may not work and that the war has been mismanaged. Expresses understanding for opponents of the war.
Quote: “We were under-planned, understaffed, under-managed, and there’s a lot of anger [among Americans] about how it’s not gone like they thought it would. That being said, pulling out right now has some additional risks for our country that we have to think about.”
Hillary R. Clinton
The New York senator voted to authorize the war in 2002 and has said her vote was not a mistake. Has proposed: Capping troops at a pre-buildup level; revoking Bush’s war authority and requiring him to ask Congress to renew it; requiring Bush to begin a withdrawal within 90 days, with a general promise to “end the war” by early 2009; and retaining a residual U.S. force for counter-terrorism and to train Iraqi troops.
Quote: Warns of “the metastasizing threat of terrorist networks recruiting troops, setting up training camps, amassing weapons.”
Voted for the 2002 Iraq war resolution. Said in the 2004 election that he did not regret the vote, then declared in November 2005 that his vote was wrong. Opposes Bush’s troop increase and -- unlike Clinton and Obama -- would cut funding to stop it. Backs a residual U.S. force.
Quote: “The first step is ... immediately withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 troops from Iraq, with the complete withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq within 12 to 18 months, allowing the Iraqis to assume greater responsibility for rebuilding their own country.”
The Illinois senator has consistently opposed the war and says he would have voted against it. Criticized Bush for his troop increase but would not cut off funds to stop it. Initially opposed a phased withdrawal of troops, but now backs legislation that starts a withdrawal this month, allows some U.S. troops to remain and suspends the pullout if Iraq meets benchmarks for progress.
Quote: Told a 2002 antiwar rally: “I don’t oppose all wars.... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.”