Our Voters for Peace and Security campaign has been focusing on getting candidates to clarify what they mean by “withdrawal” from Iraq. Many of the plans offered involve withdrawing combat troops, but don’t clearly articulate what kind of long-term US presence would remain in Iraq. It is rewarding to see the results of our efforts as candidates are digging into the finer points of their Iraq plans. In the recent Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC, John Edwards made a point of differentiating his position from Hillary Clinton’s:
MR. EDWARDS: I think that it’s true that everyone up here wants to take a responsible course to end the war in Iraq. There are, however, differences between us, and those differences need to be made aware. Good people have differences about this issue. For example, I heard Senator Clinton say on Sunday that she wants to continue combat missions in Iraq. To me, that’s a continuation of the war. I do not think we should continue combat missions in Iraq, and when I’m on a stage with the Republican nominee come the fall of 2008, I’m going to make it clear that I’m for ending the war. And the debate will be between a Democrat who wants to bring the war to an end, get all American combat troops out of Iraq, and a Republican who wants to continue the war.
SENATOR CLINTON: Tim, could I just clarify that? You know, I said there may be a continuing counterterrorism mission, which, if it still exists, will be aimed at al Qaeda in Iraq. It may require combat, Special Operations Forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out.
MR. EDWARDS: But can I just say, my only point is I don’t have any doubt that Senator Clinton wants to take a responsible course. There is a difference, however, in how we would go about this, and I think Democratic primary voters are entitled to know that difference. And the difference is really very simple. I would have our combat troops out of Iraq over a period of several months, and I would not continue combat missions in Iraq. Combat missions mean that the war is continuing. I believe this war needs to be brought to an end. [emphasis mine]
We agree that this is a critical issue for primary voters to consider in choosing a candidate, which is why our staff and volunteers have been diligently pursuing the candidates at appearances to pin them down. Our Executive Director Jon Rainwater spoke with Sen. Hillary Clinton at her block party in Oakland, and a volunteer in Reno was able to ask Elizabeth Edwards to clarify her husband’s position on leaving troops behind.
Unfortunately, the three frontrunners declared in the debate that they could not commit to removing all troops from Iraq by the end of their first term, in 2013. In contrast, Sen. Chris Dodd, Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Kucinich made the commitment, with the latter two promising to remove all troops in less than a year. Sen. Joe Biden committed to removing troops “if there is not a political reconciliation, because they’re just fodder.”
Eugene Robinson had an interesting Op-Ed in the Washington Post that called out the leading candidates for not making that commitment:
I’m also wondering what leads anyone to think that by the time the general election campaign gets underway, anything short of a clear promise to pull the plug on George W. Bush’s debacle will look like a centrist position. By then, "U.S. troops out in a year" may look like the height of caution…
…What we need to hear now from Clinton, Obama and Edwards is "the vision thing," heavy on specifics. How do they see the long-term U.S. role in the Middle East? ("Different from the way George Bush sees it" isn’t good enough.) Do they buy Bush’s distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" elements and regimes, as proxies for good and evil? Is U.S. involvement in the region about oil? Is it about religion? What do they intend to do with the permanent-looking bases the Bush administration is building in Iraq — including one just five miles from the Iranian border?
And please, no hiding behind "I don’t do hypotheticals." The Republican candidates’ view of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East is dangerously apocalyptic, but at least it’s a vision. What’s yours?