Kevin Drum of the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal threw down a blunt challenge last night to Democrats who don’t support an early fixed date for withdrawal from Iraq, basically suggesting they don’t have a clue about what to do and simply don’t want to appear “weak” for cynical political reasons. He cited my last post–a brief discussion and link to a couple of New Republic articles–as evidence of this cluelessness, if not the cynicism.Well, I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to write about Iraq without articulating a full-blown plan for the country, but speaking only for myself, yeah, I have a few thoughts about what we should say and do, based in part on Larry Diamond’s long-standing recommendations:1) Publicly announce the United States is abandoning any plans for permanent military bases in Iraq to make it absolutely clear our presence is temporary.2) Publicly announce benchmarks that will trigger withdrawal of American troops, including approval of a constitution and election of a permanent government; specific levels of trained Iraqi troops and other security forces; and renunciation of demands by major Iraqi communities that are incompatible with a stable and pluralistic regime (e.g., Kurdish right to secede, Sunni Arab privileges in a strong central government, Iranian-style Islamic Republic).3) Initiate direct negotiations with insurgents.4) Renounce any public or private-sector U.S. designs for control of Iraqi natural resources5) Launch an internationalized reconstruction effort which explicitly renounces U.S. exclusive privileges, with special attention to assistance from Sunni Arab countriesThe goal would be to leave Iraq with a half-decent chance of maintaining a sustainable government without civil war, foreign domination, or a permament base of operations and recruitment for al Qaeda. The main strategy would be to convince, through carrots and sticks, the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi’a to step back from their maximalist demands, while creating trans-communal political and security institutions. The philosophy would be to dramatically invest Iraqis with complete responsibility for their common future. And while they would not provide a guaranteed, fixed date for final U.S. withdrawal, the benchmarks would immediately create tests for Iraqis that would either lead to greater stability in the country ad large U.S. troop withdrawals in a matter of months, or would make it clear it truly is time to cut our losses and leave with a brief effort at damage control. Now, there are all sorts of objections that can legitimately be made about every line I’ve written above, but the same is obviously true about every other approach, including “timed withdrawal,” which even its advocates admit will likely lead to a failed state and chaos. And if you think my suggestions are stupid, then check out the very detailed plan articulated by Wes Clark, another opponent of “timed withdrawal,” who has forgotten more about military operations and nation-building than Kevin or I will ever know. In demanding alternatives from “hawks,” Kevin adds another stipulation that is troubling once you really think about it: any plan must be realistic given “the leadership of George Bush and his staff, not some fantasy scenario in which he suddenly turns into the reincarnation of FDR.”Unfortunately, that kind of makes any Democratic proposal on Iraq unrealistic, doesn’t it? I mean, Bush and his staff are not about to embrace “timed withdrawal,” either. And they are going to be in office until January of 2009, a juncture at which even neocons aren’t going to be arguing for 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Democratic responsibility on Iraq, other than making all the richly deserved critiques of administration policy that we’ve all been writing and talking about for years, is to give the public an idea of what our leaders would do if they were in power, nothing more and nothing less. And like it or not, this is an inherently political calculation that does not necessarily mean choosing the position most diametrically opposed to Bush.Tetchiness aside, I want to make it clear that Kevin and other “timed withdrawal” advocates are absolutely asking good and important questions of all Democrats, and particularly those who resist the course of just denouncing the whole Iraq enterprise as a disaster and getting out. I certainly share the impulse to unambiguously pin Bush and the GOP with total responsibility for the mess by refusing to countenance support for it in any form. But at a moment when there remains a chance to salvage something positive for the people of Iraq and for the sacrifices of our own troops, my own “moral compass” points me elsewhere.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.