Withdrawal Pains

Richard Clarke, the former National Security Council counterterrorism chief whose book criticizing the Bush administration -- and the White House's ferocious counterattack -- briefly dominated public debate in summer 2004, doesn't seem to have enjoyed the experience. At a lunch in Washington organized by Steve Clemons, director of the New America Foundation's foreign-policy program, Clarke bobs and weaves in response to a softball question about the White House's anti-terrorism strategy, finally saying, “I'm trying very hard to stay nonpartisan.”

Throughout the lunch, the pattern recurs: Clarke waxes at length on every terrorism-related subject under the sun, but when talk turns to the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq, his comments grow cramped and he's reluctant to draw conclusions. Clarke does go so far as to say that the question of whether a withdrawal of U.S. forces might reduce tension is “a very important” one that we need to be asking. But on the matter of setting a timetable for withdrawal, Clarke has nothing to say.

In that, he resembles most Democrats nowadays: highly critical of the Bush administration's open-ended meddling in Iraq when prodded to talk but unwilling to offer a strategy for disengagement. After Russ Feingold's August 17 decision to call for a specific schedule to remove troops by the end of 2006, none of his fellow senators hopped on the bandwagon, not even Ted Kennedy, who in January suggested he was thinking along similar lines without naming a specific date. The bulk of elected Democrats, including the party's national-security leadership (Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, et al.) agree with the White House that a time line should be rejected.

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There's a reason the political leadership is rejecting withdrawal: While most Americans now say that the war was a mistake and take a dim view of the Bush administration's handling of the conflict, support for withdrawal -- either immediate or in timetable form -- remains below 50 percent.

As policy, however, the Pottery Barn Democrats are falling short. Everyone agrees that Iraq requires, above all else, a political settlement, and a credible case can be made that a timetable is the best opportunity to achieve just that. The American troop presence in Iraq is, itself, a major Sunni Arab grievance, and, uniquely among their litany of complaints, something we have direct control over. Besides, efforts to cajole the Shia and Kurdish politicians who run the Iraqi government into adopting a more conciliatory stance toward the Sunnis have clearly failed. Despite Pottery Barn complaints, the administration has, in fact, tried quite hard to push just such an agenda, first through the person of Iyad Allawi and then during the negotiations over the Iraqi constitution. Ending the unconditional American security guarantee might well cause Iraqi leaders to rethink the wisdom of that path. Slate's Fred Kaplan reported on July 27 that “since the Americans have said they will leave once the Iraqi security forces are self-sufficient [Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim] Jaafari figures it's best to keep that day at bay” by deliberately foot-dragging on the creation of competent security forces.

For these and other reasons, members of the Democratic policy establishment in good standing -- like Michael O'Hanlon, James Steinberg, and Ivo H. Daalder at the Brookings Institution -- have come out for some form of a timetable-based strategy. But in op-eds and television appearances, most elected Democrats, while ostensibly critical, are in practice repeating the White House line that what's needed is for reconstruction aid to flow, Iraqi troops to be trained, and, most of all, a political compromise to be reached that can unite Iraq's different ethnic and sectarian factions. This is exactly what the administration is trying to do; Democratic critics are left simply insisting that it should be done better without an idea of how to do it better. Meanwhile, consensus-oriented institutions like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Senate Democrats' new rapid-response communications shop, and the Center for American Progress refuse to offer policy ideas one way or another, instead issuing laundry lists of complaints and damning statistics reflecting the reality -- on which everyone can at least agree -- that things are going poorly.

The only substantive way that party leaders challenge the White House is to demand that the administration publish a set of metrics for success that would be subject to public scrutiny. This, again, is smart politics, assuming the mission in Iraq is going south, as it would reveal the administration's failures; similarly, refusal to publish such criteria would undercut the official line that all is well. As policy, however, it's hard to see how this could make a difference: While metrics could help make this clearer to the public, they can't change the facts on the ground.

In an August 24 op-ed, Gary Hart challenged directly, accusing Democrats of lacking the “courage” to call for withdrawal. And he's right: Opposition to withdrawal seems overwhelmingly political. Wesley Clark, who as a war opponent is seen by many hawks as an effective spokesman against a timetable, has warned in the pages of The Washington Post and in public speeches that we must “change the course” in Iraq “before it's too late.” I asked Clark when we might know that the window of opportunity had closed, and he dodged, saying only, “We're still far from that point.” Biden, when asked for a response to Hart on the August 28 edition of This Week, declined to do so in any meaningful way, offering instead the bizarre reply that “for me to defend myself against Gary Hart is kind of ludicrous to begin with. I kind of resent it, to tell the truth.”

But despite the careful efforts at political positioning and the blows President Bush has taken on the Iraq issue, Democrats of all stripes face a painful political problem of their own. Most polls have support for withdrawal in the near future in the low 40s. That's not nearly enough for an anti-war campaign to win. At the same time, those numbers suggest that an overwhelming majority of actual Democratic voters want to end the war soon. It's hard to imagine Democratic politicians credibly positioning themselves as the leaders of a party of better war management as long as it's clear that, in office, they'd be beholden to a deeply anti-war base. Moreover, there's reason to think that even if a majority of Americans do come to favor abandoning the war effort, advocating withdrawal would be a poor political strategy. Defeatism, as the 1972 election showed, is not a very appealing political product, even in the context of a deeply unpopular war.

More convincing anti-war arguments, centered on the case that withdrawal could be a positive contribution to Iraq's stability, might do the trick, but bucking majority opinion is something politicians are always loath to do. Thus, it's no surprise that many Democrats seem to feel that caution is the better part of valor on this issue, and that the best thing to do is to say as little as possible. Iraq, after all, is a mess of the president's creation, not theirs, and no honest policy proposal can be as appealing as the fantasy universe of Bush's speeches. Poking the occasional hole in that bubble and then lying low while hoping the administration implodes seems to make sense, though that strategy risks repeating the debacle of 2002, when the politics of evasion went down to massive defeat. Under the circumstances, though, it might be best to simply abandon the quest for party unity and to watch the midterms closely. The fortunes of the hawks and doves in those elections should help guide the Democrat platform as they head into 2008.

Matthew Yglesias a Prospect staff writer.

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