- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

The Democratic presidential candidates have been attacking President Bush relentlessly on the Iraq war and occupation, but most of them would follow the same general course of action.

Ever since Mr. Bush sent American air, naval and ground forces into Iraq on March 19 to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Democratic candidates have been escalating their campaign rhetoric against the way the president went to war and is handling postwar reconstruction.

Their noisy political offensive has masked the fact that a majority of them would keep U.S. troops in Iraq while seeking increased financial and peacekeeping support from the United Nations and U.S. allies, just as the administration is doing.

No one in the nine-member Democratic field has been a fiercer critic of Mr. Bush’s policies toward Iraq than former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. He has leveled stinging attacks at key Democratic rivals who voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force to oust the Iraqi dictator from power.

But Mr. Dean, who maintains that the war resolution was “a mistake,” says he would keep U.S. forces in Iraq. “Now that we’re there, we can’t just pull out,” he has said in the candidate debates.

Mr. Dean says he would accelerate U.S. training of Iraqi army and police forces to take over the bulk of security operations, backed by a larger coalition of foreign troops and U.N. personnel to help with Iraq’s reconstruction.

However, the administration already has begun to build a military and police force of some 70,000 Iraqis who are taking over more of the peacekeeping work, and it has won unanimous support from the U.N. Security Council for deploying foreign troops in Iraq in a multinational force that would be under U.S. command.

Indeed, the leading Democratic candidates are remarkably similar in saying what they would do in Iraq, and in most respects their positions are not much different from Mr. Bush’s postwar agenda. Among them:

• Sen. John Kerry: The senator from Massachusetts voted for the resolution authorizing Mr. Bush to take military action in Iraq, though Mr. Kerry now says it “was wrong to rush to war without building a true international coalition.” However, like the president, he would speed up the training of Iraqi military and police forces and bring in the United Nations to share the load.

• Rep. Richard A. Gephardt: The congressman from Missouri also voted for the war resolution, which he helped write, and has been a steadfast supporter of the U.S. military presence in Iraq as part of the war on terrorism. He wants NATO troops “to join us immediately” to broaden the international coalition and a U.N. partnership in Iraq’s reconstruction and security needs.

• Wesley Clark: The retired four-star general who headed NATO forces in Kosovo has been all over the map on Iraq. First, he said he would have supported the war resolution, then said he would have voted no. Now Mr. Clark says he wants an even larger U.S. force in Iraq, more coalition troops from Europe and elsewhere, and $50 billion to pay for reconstruction.

• Sen. John Edwards: The freshman from North Carolina, who is not seeking re-election next year, backed the war resolution, but voted against the $87 billion Mr. Bush wants to pay for the occupation and rebuilding. Still, Mr. Edwards wants NATO peacekeepers “to relieve the burden” on U.S. troops and a larger coalition of allies to pay more of the rebuilding costs.

• Sen. Joe Lieberman: The senator from Connecticut has been roundly booed at Democratic events for his unwavering support of the war, though unlike most of his rivals and the administration, he would send more U.S. troops to Iraq to defend them from terrorist and guerrilla attacks.

• Carol Moseley Braun: The former senator from Illinois has been opposed to the war from the beginning, but in debates with her colleagues, she has said she would send in a multinational force “to help us out of the quagmire in Iraq.”

• The Rev. Al Sharpton: The New York civil rights activist takes a similar position. Though he has been vague on what he would do, he wants U.S. troops brought home. “I’ve never heard of people acting like we don’t need an exit,” he said.

• Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich: The congressman from Ohio who barely draws 1 percent in the national polls is the only candidate who has said he would bring all U.S. troops home now and replace them with U.N. peacekeepers.

Meantime, some analysts and party strategists believe that even though most of the Democratic candidates would follow war policies similar to what the administration is doing, their intense criticism of the war’s aftermath could have a negative impact on their party in 2004.

Their continuing attacks on the war “sends a message of weakness to those who are not immersed in the inside baseball of the Democratic presidential primary process,” said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation.

He said that the candidates’ attacks seek to appeal to the liberal antiwar base of the party, adding that the danger is that they may alienate many mainstream voters who support Mr. Bush’s war policies. “Any candidate who wants to survive the Democratic primary process needs to move hard left and become a pacifist on the war. But they are only going out in front of adoring audiences. They are not going out and exposing themselves to that 56 percent [of the public] who think we did the right thing to take military action,” Mr. Franc said.

Even some Democratic strategists worry that the rising chorus of antiwar voices in their party sends the wrong message to swing voters. “If all they hear is that we are against the war, that’s not a message we want to carry into the general election,” said a strategist for one of the candidates who voted for the Senate war resolution, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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