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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Liberal “Hawks” and Iraq

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.

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