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Democratic candidates’ plan to end the war is a plan for failure

Quiz: How many people have been killed and wounded in Iraq since Hillary Clinton said that an immediate full-scale withdrawal would be a “big mistake”?

Answer: She said that on Nov. 22, 2005. Not really that long ago, but since then 1,600 American soldiers have been killed and 11,000 wounded, and about 32,000 Iraqi civilians and security forces have been killed and untold numbers wounded. The numbers of dead and wounded are graphic illustrations of just how badly the situation there has deteriorated in the 20 months since that pronouncement.

Hillary Clinton wants to end the war and bring the troops home from Iraq. Last month she told Iowans that she wants to start “ending this war — not next year, not next month, but today,” and she told a labor gathering in June, “We need to bring our combat troops home from Iraq, starting right now.”

But – and this is a big fat but – she also wants to keep some there. Not permanently; just, you know, to train Iraqis on how to be non-partisan security forces rather than promoters of sectarian murder; to keep an eye on the Kurds so they don’t get any ideas about independence, which Turkey wouldn’t appreciate; to prevent Iran from making Iraq into a client state; and to pursue terrorists (that would be the ones we created).

Barack Obama wants to bring the troops home from Iraq. In November 2006 he called for withdrawal to begin in 2007. “I refuse to accept the possibility that I will have to come back a year from now and say the same thing,” he said.

Well, November is coming up fast. Since he said those words, the number of troops in Iraq has increased by 30,000, and another 800 American soldiers have been killed and over 4,400 wounded, and 17,000 Iraqi civilians and security forces have been killed and untold numbers wounded.

But despite this clarion call for withdrawal, Obama also wants to keep some troops in Iraq:

Senator Obama introduced legislation in January 2007 to offer a responsible alternative to President Bush’s failed escalation policy. The legislation commences redeployment of U.S. forces no later than May 1, 2007 with the goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008 — a date consistent with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s expectations. The plan allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq as basic force protection, to engage in counter-terrorism and to continue the training of Iraqi security forces. If the Iraqis are successful in meeting the 13 benchmarks for progress laid out by the Bush Administration, this plan also allows for the temporary suspension of the redeployment, provided Congress agrees that the benchmarks have been met.

Yes, for all the sniping between Obama and Clinton, their positions on withdrawal sound remarkably similar: Withdraw, but not exactly. And notice Obama’s added caveat: If Iraq meets the 13 “benchmarks,” the withdrawal could be suspended. Temporarily. Whatever that means. Probably has the same definition as Clinton’s “not permanently.” Words emanating from the mouths of politicians take on acute degree of indefinablity. Contrast the substance of Obama’s grandly titled The Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007 with the words he used to introduce it:

“The days of our open-ended commitment must come to a close.”

The only other major candidate, John Edwards, also differs only in the details. Like Clinton and Obama, he wants all combat troops withdrawn; Edwards specifies immediate withdrawal of 40,000-50,000 troops, and ending the war by 2008. Yet he, too, wants some troops to stay:

After withdrawal, Edwards believes that sufficient forces should remain in the region to contain the conflict and ensure that instability in Iraq does not spillover and create a regional war, a terrorist haven, or spark a genocide…He also believes the U.S. must intensify its efforts to train the Iraqi security forces.

“We’ve got to be prepared to control a civil war if it starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq,” Edwards said during the Chicago AFL-CIO debate.

“Contain the conflict,” control a civil war, prevent a regional war and genocide and go after terrorists – but not with combat? There goes the language again.

Ol’ Joe Biden wants to withdraw the troops except for those he wants to keep there for the above-stated reasons, plus divide the country into three regions and keep the various factions from each others’ throats until the central government can do so by itself.

This is a fool’s game, which means it’s fools who play it. Bring the troops home, but keep some there to do all sorts of things that aren’t combat, like contain a civil war, patrol the borders, prevent genocide, fight terrorists. Not combat.

The British are trying that. Down in Basra they’ve pulled back most of their remaining 5,000 troops (from a peak of 40,000) to a base outside of town. The troops focus on training Iraqi security forces and do a little counter-insurgency stuff. There are 500 British troops in Basra Palace “surrounded like cowboys and Indians.”. The police forces the British are training are completely infiltrated by Shiite militias, the militias and criminal gangs have already staked out their territories and their government agencies, assassinations have increased, and fighting – much of it over oil money – is raging. And all this is happening in a place with virtually one sectarian group – the Shi`a, who aren’t into self-genocide, just factional murder – and without any major Al Qaeda activity. A British version of The Surge had little effect. “The British have basically been defeated in the south,” is how an American intelligence official puts it.

The British in effect have told the Iraqis they’re not there to fight anymore, just to help maintain order and train Iraqi police and soliders. This has not stopped Iraqis from attacking them. Who could expect anything but the same reaction toward an American withdrawal of combat forces while some as yet unspecified number stays for an unspecified amount of time (that would be until the Iraqi central government manages to act like a government) doing all those non-combat things? Again, according to the three leading Democratic candidates, those things include fighting terrorism, containing civil war, patrolling the borders, controlling the Kurds, preventing genocide, and training the Iraqis to do all these things themselves.

Bush and the neo-cons have created an intolerable disaster that can have no good conclusion any time soon. The Democrats seem to think they have a choice that could only be called a Hobson’s Choice: continue to have troops in Iraq, or have no troops at all. All or none: That’s not a real choice, given the mess we’ve made of Iraq. It’s morally indefensible to say we can just leave – pull out everybody and tell the Iraqis,”You’re on your own.” We have a responsibility there now we didn’t have before Bush. We’ve decimated the population, trashed the economy, destroyed the infrastructure, and obliterated the political system.

At the same time, we cannot keep enough troops there to do the things the leading Democrats say have to be done without them engaging in combat, and if they’re engaged in combat who’s doing all the other tasks? The British experience is a test case that shows this plan is doomed to failure.

A New York Times editorial today said essentially the same thing, but termed it the futility of “trying to continue the war on a reduced scale. It is folly to expect a smaller American force to do in a short time what a much larger force could not do over a very long time.”

The Times limited its definition of what “[t]he United States cannot walk away from” to the brand-new “international terrorist front” Bush’s misbegotten policies have made of Iraq. Yet while apparently denouncing the kinds of plans the Democratic candidates are coming up with, the Times virtually advocates the same thing. America, the paper says, “will need to keep sufficient forces and staging points in the region to strike effectively against terrorist sanctuaries there or a Qaeda bid to hijack control of a strife-torn Iraq.”

The Times is playing the same fool’s game as the Democratic candidates. Like them, it wants to bring the combat troops home but leave some troops there to handle terrorism. The Times stops there, doesn’t include all the other duties the candidates say these troops would undertake, but how is the result any different? How can anyone tell if it’s a Shiite militia, a Sunni insurgent group, or some form of Al Qaeda that is attacking people, buildings, pipelines, Iraqi police, Iraqi troops, or American troops? Would the language be changed again to call vicious fighting between American troops and an enemy force something other than combat? It’s obvious that the non-combat troops would be involved in combat from Day One of the Great Withdrawal of Combat Troops.

A Hobbesian choice is maybe more what we need to think about. That kind of “choice” can be described as a robber saying, “Your money or your life.” Not much of a choice, and certainly no free choice. People will readily give up their money and remain alive, but they still lose. In our situation, substitute “help” for money, and you might find a way out that will still cost us but might save a lot of lives. That way would mean the military help of surrounding nations of the Islamic Middle East, maybe with U.N. participation, and financed by America and Europe, for the Europeans have an enormous economic stake in a viable, oil-producing Iraq.

I haven’t seen this idea discussed much, just here and there, and not in the mainstream press. In fact, I’ve seen almost nothing about such proposals even in the alternative news media.

Each nation bordering or near Iraq is watching with alarm the distintegrating situation there. They know a stable Iraq, in whatever form it eventually takes, is essential. The United States has to approach them and the U.N. on bended knee, accept responsibility for what has happened there, and ask for help in exchange for financing. We don’t even have the luxury of demanding a democratic Iraq, though we can sweeten the pot in that direction. Iraqis are much more likely to accept the assistance of fellow Muslims than they are that of Americans and Europeans.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that these countries would agree to help, or even to agree with each other on a course of action (Turkey, for example, would be … umm .. difficult), or that their help would be effective. This is the Hobbesian choice part of the deal. We don’t know. What we do know, however, is that the path we’re on – the path these Democrats want to take – shows little promise of anything but more death and destruction.

Edited to include New York Times editorial.

14 comments to Democratic candidates’ plan to end the war is a plan for failure

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  • JackD

    And if the neighboring countries decline to bail us out, what then? My opinion is that we leave anyway and allow whatever bloodbath ensues to occur. Of course, some would say that the bloodbath is my fault.

    I agree totally that maintaining a “small” force is utterly ineffective and probably counter productive in that it allows the insurgents and al Qaeda a continuing rallying cause.

    What do you recommend should diplomacy fail and other countries and organizations decline to take the field?

  • It’s actually hard for me to keep myself from advocating for immediate and unconditional withdrawal – that’s how angry and disgusted I am at what we’ve done to Iraq, and by Iraq I mean the people: the individuals, the families, the communities.

    That diplomacy might fail is both a given and a hypothetical for now. Of course it can fail – its failures are legendary. But it’s also the one option we’ve never seriously tried. Everything else has failed. It’s our only recourse.

    Do you not agree that we have a responsibility to try to make right what we – America – made so very wrong? Our reputation is in tatters now, but with diplomacy and some kind of regional participation in a movement to bring peace and reconstruction to Iraq, we might be able to sew bits and pieces of our honor together again. Just leaving without any effort to fix what we’ve broken would only ruin our reputation further.

    We won’t know until we try. In not discussing this possibility, the administration and these candidates, this country’s leading institutions, show no imagination. That’s to be expected, but not tolerated.

  • A sober evaluation of the dilemmas that suddenly slither into view wtshtf (when the shit hits the fan) which have been rather glibly glossed over back when withdrawal was still only a pipedream (and may yet be still, depends on who’s in charge).

    The one distinction I hear being made between Edwards and seemingly also Obama as opposed to Hillary, illustrated in the quote by Edwards you gave here, he (and Obama) seems to want total withdrawal from Iraq and his ‘contingency’ force for genocide or other catastrophic turns would be “in the region” rather than in the country. Now I’m not sure where in the region either of them means and, depending on where, what good that would do. At this point, a location of American forces anywhere in the Middle East on anything remotely Muslim turf could be seen as casus belli for at least Al Qaeda although conceivably not for the myriad Iraqi insurgents.

    I agree with all those who think leaving a “minor” force inside Iraq is no solution at all. All the eggs in those baskets which were the wet dreams of all the Halliburton, Bechtel, KBRs etc., thinking oil money and its auxiliary services were theirs to influence for an indefinite time to come … and all the investment in US military base facilities … will be down the drain at least as far as utility to Americans, as they should never have been in the drain in the first place. “Good money after bad,” as they say, or maybe bad money after bad.

    The symbolism of anything more than the usual Marine US Embassy guard contingent posted to any country would be sufficient to keep the anti-American rallying cry aloft and be a sort of suicide watch for those assigned.

    I think M’s right that the best we can do is promote regional support and yet that too leads to the certainty that that will never come in this administration. The latest report on the blow-by-blow of how Bush failed his commitments to Afghanistan is also sobering as a chronology of how to let history repeat itself…. and doom us and them (Americans/NATO and Afghanis) to premature “mission accomplished” delusion into failure.

    One of the things Chris Dodd noted in the AFL-CIO debate, in stressing that the US ‘retreat’ must be to diplomacy, is that among other things we certainly don’t sell arms to Saudi Arabia, as Bush is now doing, without at the least getting them involved in regional peacekeeping and diplomatic processes.

    For what it’s worth and anyone who didn’t read this transcript yet, here’s the portion of that AFL-CIO debate last week on the question most relevant to this post/thread:

    OLBERMANN: ….And, as we promised, the subject is going to be Iraq. And we’re going to go down the line here in 30 seconds, from left to right, starting with Governor Richardson. Here’s something that an Iowa voter has asked be answered: “If you get us out of Iraq and somehow Al Qaida takes over anyway, what will you do then?”

    RICHARDSON: I will take whatever steps are necessary to protect the security of the United States. By withdrawing from Iraq, the real peace and reconciliation in that country can begin. We can get the three groups together. We can have an all-Muslim peacekeeping force. We can have a donor conference to rebuild that country. And then we can focus on what really affects American foreign policy: the rights against international terrorists; greenhouse gas emissions — reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and, third, a measure to ensure that there are no dirty bombs and a number of fissionable material around the world.

    OLBERMANN: Governor, thank you. Senator Obama, that same hypothetical — and I know it’s that, but this question is asked by a voter in Iowa: “If you get us out of Iraq, and somehow Al Qaida does take over, what do you do then?”

    OBAMA: Look, if we followed my judgment originally, we wouldn’t have been in Iraq.
    (APPLAUSE)
    We’re here now, and we’ve got no good options. We got bad options and worse options. It is my strong belief, and I introduced legislation back in January, that the only way we’re going to stabilize Iraq and make sure
    that Al Qaida does not take over in the long term is to begin a phased redeployment, so that we don’t have anti-American sentiment as a focal point for Al Qaida in Iraq. We can still have troops in the region, outside of Iraq, that can help on counterterrorism activities. And we’ve got to make sure that they don’t establish long-term bases there. But right now, the bases are in Afghanistan and in the hills between Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s where we’ve got to focus.

    OLBERMANN: Thank you, Senator. Senator Biden, what do you do if that hypothetical occurs?

    BIDEN: Bush has not told the truth for seven years; it’s time we tell the truth. The truth is, if Iraq — if Al Qaida establishes a base in Iraq, all these people who are talking about going into Pakistan are going to have to send your kids back to Iraq. And so the fact of the matter is: It matters how we get out of Iraq. And I am the only one on this stage who has a detailed political plan how to get out: Separate the parties; let them be in regions; give them control over their own security; set up a limited central government; begin to draw down our troops. But let’s start talking the truth to the American people.

    OLBERMANN: Thank you, Senator Biden. Senator Clinton, what can we do in that hypothetical?

    CLINTON: Well, I have a three-point plan to get out of Iraq, starting with redeploying our troops, but doing it responsibly and carefully because, as many of the veterans in this audience know, taking troops out can be just as dangerous as bringing them in. And we’ve got to get out of Iraq smarter than we got in. Secondly, we’ve got to put more pressure on the Iraqi government, including withholding aid from them if they don’t begin to stabilize the country themselves. And thirdly, we need an intensive diplomatic effort, regionally and internationally.
    But if it is a possibility that Al Qaida would stay in Iraq, I think we need to stay focused on trying to keep them on the run as we currently are doing in Al Anbar province.
    [z: As analysts noted, this line of Clinton's didn't get much commentary but sure could be interpreted as a sort of "going soft on Bush" and, at the least, implies retaining troops inside Iraq.]

    OLBERMANN: Senator Dodd, how do you handle this situation where we get out, you get us out of Iraq, and Al Qaida does, against all prediction, take over?

    DODD: Well, let me take 10 seconds. And, first of all, this evening there are a lot of young men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whatever your views on policy in Iraq, every one of us owe them a deep debt of gratitude and appreciation. They haven’t failed, policy has.
    How about hearing it for our men and women in uniform?
    (APPLAUSE)
    I believe and have led on this over the last number of months here to begin redeploying immediately. We can do so with 2.5 divisions coming out each month, done safely and reasonably well. We then need to have a robust approach on diplomacy. This administration has treated state craft and diplomacy as if it were a gift to our opponents, a sign of weakness.
    The United States has been successful, in both Democratic and Republican administrations, over the years, when we have drawn the diplomatic arrow out of our quiver here, to make a difference around the world.
    We shouldn’t be selling arms to Saudi Arabia while they’re refusing to support us in Iraq.
    (APPLAUSE)
    We need to have a clear message to everybody in the region that we want them to be part of the solution.

    OLBERMANN: Thank you, Senator. Senator Edwards, what do we do in that situation, where, against all of these predictions, Al Qaida nonetheless takes over Iraq after you get us out of there?

    EDWARDS: Well, we have to prepare for that possibility. I can tell you exactly what I would do as president. As president, I’d draw 40,000 to 50,000 troops out today. I would engage the Iraqi government and the Sunni leadership, the Sunni and Shia leadership, into trying to reach some kind of political reconciliation. Because, without that, there cannot be security in Iraq. And then we need to make a serious, intense, diplomatic effort. We’ll bring the Iranians and the Syrians and the others in the region in helping provide stability in Iraq.
    And we have to prepare for the possibility — which George Bush has never done — that things may actually go bad. That means we’ve got to be prepared to control a civil war if it starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq.
    And we have to be prepared for the worst possibility that you never hear anyone talking about, which is the possibility that genocide breaks and the Shia try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. As president of the United States, I would plan and prepare for all those possibilities.

    OLBERMANN: Senator Edwards, thank you. Congressman Kucinich, what do you do if an Iraq post-America — post-American — in a Kucinich administration — is influenced or controlled by Al Qaida?

    KUCINICH: Keith, we need to get out of Iraq and get out of Iraq now. And I will plan to do just that. Congress has — the Democratic Congress has the ability to tell President Bush, “You got $97 billion six weeks ago. Use that money to bring the troops home and set in motion an international security and peacekeeping force that would stabilize Iraq.”
    I’m the only one here on the stage who had the vision and the foresight to not only vote against the war, but also vote against funding for the war. People want a president who makes the right decision the first time, and the right decision was never to go in there, and I’m going to get those troops home, and I’ll keep the pressure up on the Democratic Congress, and I ask for your help.
    (APPLAUSE)

  • It’s good to know that at least minor Democratic candidates have talked about diplomacy. They must have channeled me. Why is it that only the ones without a chance of being the nominee are the ones most emphasizing a smarter way to both get out and repair the damage we’ve done without keeping American soldiers there as targets?

    It’s disconcerting to see Obama rewriting his own plan for television audience consumption. That plan of his states plainly that troops would remain in Iraq, and that withdrawal could be suspended temporarily if Iraq meets these benchmarks. Now he implies his plan is to have troops remain only outside Iraq. Maybe he means both inside and outside. Whatever, he’s showing himself to be a slippery guy.

    And Clinton mentioned diplomacy! She oughta put that word on her website, maybe bandy it about more. The MSM might even pick up on it, and we could get a movement going!

    Edwards, too, gives at least lip service to diplomacy. It’s a start, I guess.

  • JackD

    It seems to me that leaving or not (in the sense of trying to clean up our mess) is the principal issue. Diplomacy of course is necessary and should be tried but the primary question is to leave or not. My belief is that leaving will remove some of the incentive for insurgent activity although it won’t stop the power struggle. I don’t see staying as stopping the power struggle either. Then too, it seems unlikely that we have the capacity for an extended “surge,” even if we opted to try that.

  • Jack, since it apparently takes months to get 160,000 soldiers and their equipment out of Iraq, intense diplomacy has to begin now to get Iraq’s Islamic neighborhood committed to helping rebuild the country, before we start pulling out our forces. The neighbors should be ready to intervene at the same time we begin withdrawing.

    The sooner and more we withdraw without some commitment from regional nations, the more our soldiers will become victims and the more Iraqis will suffer from sectarian and criminal violence. As Kevin notes in his post above, we’re arming the region to the teeth. These countries should be able to send in peacekeeping forces at fairly short notice. But I’m fairly sure they haven’t been asked (disclosure: that’s an understatement).

    The big problem with the whole idea of diplomacy and substitution of our army with peacekeepers from neighboring Arabic-speaking countries is that there’s not one person in this brain-dead (assuming they weren’t brainless to begin with) administration who seems inclined that way. Rice, maybe, but she does only what she’s told. Initiative doesn’t seem to be her thing. I don’t keep track of secretaries of state, but I can’t recall a weaker one. This is a result of an administration that sneers at diplomacy.

    I’ve got a sinking feeling that Bush will either (1) refuse to begin pulling out at all; (2) begin withdrawal without seeking diplomatic and other military help from the region; (3) begin withdrawal but wait so long to ask for help that there’s no time to get it before we’re gone. Any of these scenarios will be marked by Bush-Cheney’s usual level of astonishing incompetence.

    In other words, I have to believe that Bush-Cheney will impossibly screw up any solution – let alone a good one – to the situation they have created because (1) they don’t care and (2) they’re incredibly dumb.

    For me, the diplomatic solution I wrote about here is just a faint whisper of a hope, barely there. A few prominent Democrats are already talking about it. As the true gravity of the situation begins to sink in, it’s my hope that diplomacy becomes a meme that spreads throughout the media and Congress in the coming months, and that momentum will build on that.

    My faith is less than zero.

    And yet the alternative to any of the scenarios – and I know there are plenty I haven’t thought about – is to wait until January of 2009.

    Well, now I’m depressing myself.

  • JackD

    I don’t disagree with any of that. My prediction is that Bush/Cheney hang on to pass everything off to the successor.

  • Good Lord, Jack! Do you think they can actually continue on this path for the next 18 months, beating back all challenge, with no change? Exclude from your calculation change for the worse.

    What are you thinking Petraeus’s report will say? It’s hard for me to believe that his report or some other development won’t somehow give Bush cover to declare victory – as always, truth and fact be damned – and begin withdrawal.

    Wait! I’ve got an idea! Let’s think glass half-full: delete everything in your post after “hang…”

    Attn: NSA, CIA, FBI, DIA, AG, etc. (FISA, Congress, 4th Amendment no longer relevant): A hyperbolic, thus not-serious, statement of my anger.

    Site manager: Please review for appropriateness and risk assessment.

  • JackD

    Petraeus’ report will contain enough good news carefully surrounded with “howevers” to allow Bush to do whatever he wants. I predict he will keep on keeping on so that he can blame his successor (probably Democratic) for losing.

  • Montfort, I think Jack’s right. Not enough Democrats actually want out, and as the FISA vote makes perfectly clear, not enough of them have half a brain, to force the administration into making any substantive changes. The only good news I’ve seen of late is the War Czar’s openness to a draft, and that’s good news solely because if it comes to that, I may be the only person in the country with “I told you so” rights on the question.

  • Joe

    As to placement of troops, I have heard mention for some time that one assumed solution would be to put the reduced amount in N. Iraq, Kurd territory.

    Anyway, those three don’t seem the radical types on foreign policy, though Obama has a good ace to play with Samantha Powers on his side. Obama is hesistant to go too far ahead of what is deemed mainstream, even if the “accepted wisdom” is dubious. Edwards doesn’t have the experience to risk too much. HC is moderate/hawkish on foreign policy anyway.

    So, Weldon and Jack seem correctly dubious.

  • My pessimism is being blatantly mischaracterized as optimism. What I said I want to happen is not what I think will happen. Quote: “My faith is less than zero.” I’m as negative as the rest of you. When it comes to Bush-Cheney and the three leading Democratic candidates I wrote about, I am the King of Negativity!

    If there are any positive developments, they will not come from “leaders” but from “followers.” I don’t think it’s hope but common-sense deduction to say the push for diplomacy is going to mount in the coming months, and the push will come from a few “nobodies” inside the Beltway and the general public outside Washington. The media will pick it up, and soon politicians will be taking credit for it. All but two of the seven candidates above at least mentioned diplomacy, four prominently. This is a sign of a meme beginning. I believe Bush’s hand may (may, not will – I’m still pessimisticker than anybody here) be forced, finally.

    On the other hand, I think it entirely possible that Bush-Cheney will find an excuse to attack Iran, the domestic fallout of that being predetermined uses of the Patriot Act. It’s all been put in place, awaiting the opportunity.

  • JackD

    You might have noticed today’s administration move to designate the revolutionary guards as a terrorist organization. As Fritz Gerlach observes on the Slate Fray, this is like designating the USMC as terrorists from the perspective of Iran as a country.