Iraq and a hard place

The Democratic presidential candidates must articulate clear exit strategies
By EDITORIAL  |  August 1, 2007

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Getting out of Iraq is going to be more difficult than getting in. Nothing is more painfully obvious, and little else will be as fraught with hazard. The risks of American withdrawal — and it is not a matter of if we leave, but a question of when — are multiple. There are political implications at home and abroad. There are questions that could influence the life or death of American and allied troops, civilian contractors, and Iraqi civilians — both those identified with the war, and those who will be caught in the crossfire of retreat. And there are potential financial difficulties surrounding the removal of billions of dollars worth of equipment and material. The situation is as complex as it is perilous.

Unfortunately, complexity is not a strong suit for President George W. Bush and his henchmen. Duplicity, mendacity: those are their stock and trade. As Iraq continues to degenerate, the Bush Administration is floating plans that would call for deep engagement in Iraq to last for two more years, into 2009. This reckless agenda flies in the face of the military’s own assessment that the backbone of military sustainability will begin to break sometime in 2008. Perhaps the only thing more criminal than the conduct that landed the US in Iraq in the first place is a strategy that will keep our troops there for an ill-defined future — and potentially in perpetuity, if this nation’s previous military entanglements are any indication.

Some of Bush’s fellow Republicans have begun to toy with the reality of this situation. Self-styled tough guys Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and John Warner of Virginia have sent wimpy but nevertheless welcome signals to the White House that it is time to call “game over.” Moderate Senator Olympia Snow of Maine is vigorously working to make the Senate do what the White House will not. But with the exception of almost-eccentric libertarian-conservative Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, every one of the Republican presidential candidates supports Bush’s disastrous war plan. That spells trouble.

Because America was led into Iraq by reasoning that was dimwitted, and rhetoric that was based on deception and outright lies, it is imperative that the Democratic candidates now give the public what it needs: strong and repeated doses of plainspeak — not just the bellicose posturing that is Bush’s hallmark. It is not important that the Democrats agree with what is being said, but it is vital that the candidates touch on as many of the details, and explain the full range of contingencies for withdrawal as intelligence and imagination allow. They must use the bully pulpit to educate an already war-weary public as to what it will take to bring our troops home. It took the former Soviet Union nine months to withdraw from Afghanistan when it decided its adventure in that contiguous nation had failed. Iraq is half a world away. The task the US faces is going to be considerably more complicated.

In the wake of CNN’s YouTube debate, Salon’s Walter Shapiro divided the Democratic presidential candidates into two fields: the withdrawal “realists” (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joseph Biden) and the exit “purists” (John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Christopher Dodd, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich). What separates the camps are the degrees of difficulty they see in extricating the US from Iraq. The realists, true to their name, believe it will be a more time-consuming and arduous task.

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