- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Democratic Party finds itself in a difficult position these days: groping toward something it can spin as a coherent alternative to the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war. The party faces a difficult — if not impossible — task, because it is trying simultaneously to appeal to two constituencies with dramatically different world views: 1) the left-wing Democratic base which hates President Bush and would like to see him impeached; and 2) moderates and centrists who have been deserting the party in large numbers since the late 1960s because they associate the party with foreign-policy weakness. The defection of these Democrats spelled political doom for presidential stand-bearers such as George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. The task facing the party leadership is finding a way to reassure the centrists it really wants some form of “success” in Iraq (however defined), while reassuring the MoveOn.org crowd that they will get of Iraq as soon as it becomes politically possible to abandon the Iraqis to their fate.

To be certain, there are prominent Democrats who have behaved responsibly on the war: Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut has been a true profile in courage, a modern-day version of the late Washington Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. But like Mr. Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1972 and 1976, Mr. Lieberman ran afoul of the left-wing activists, found himself increasingly marginalized within the Democratic Party and losing in the presidential primaries.

Among those who are likely to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has commendably avoided trying to set a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, for which she is frequently excoriated by the left-wing blogosphere. (In one recent posting on Antiwar.com, for example, her support for the war was termed “depraved.”) As the presidential primaries and caucuses draw nearer, it will be interesting to see whether Mrs. Clinton will continue to back the war as she comes under intense pressure to issue diktats to elected Iraqi leaders —telling them that if they don’t jump through all sorts of political hoops and resolve their differences right away, American troops will leave.

But the reality is that, Sens. Lieberman and Clinton aside, the only principles Democratic leaders seem to agree on are that it’s time to start pulling Americans out of Iraq and putting deadlines on Iraqis (the elected government rather than the terrorists). Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a potential candidate for president, called for dividing Iraq into three separate regions — a Kurdish region in the north, a Shi’ite one in the south and a Sunni one in the center of the country, with Baghdad becoming an open city and some kind of international police force being brought in to help Iraqi forces keep the peace. Under the Biden plan, Iraq would be held together by a loose central government, clearing the way for the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from the country by 2008. The central problem with Mr. Biden’s proposal, of course, is the inconvenient fact that if the police force doesn’t perform appreciably better than, say, the world community has in places like Kosovo, Rwanda or Darfur in recent years, it could result in ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, as local militias terrorize people from the “wrong” ethnic or sectarian faction into relocating.

Indeed, some of Mr. Biden’s fellow Democrats immediately made clear that he was speaking for himself. Sen. Tom Harkin, for example, expressed reservations about the idea that the United States can “dictate” the partitioning of Iraq. And Mr. Kerry, who is contemplating another run for president, took a verbal jab at Mr. Biden’s plan, saying: “You can’t just do it; you have to arrive at agreements to do it.” But Mr. Kerry has proposed a retreat plan of his own that is arguably more ill-advised than the Biden proposal. Writing in the New York Times last month, Mr. Kerry took aim at Iraqi politicians who were attempting (and eventually succeeded) in putting together a government. Mr. Kerry said Washington should tell the Iraqis that we would withdraw our military if they did not form a government by May 15. But even if they jumped through that hoop, Mr. Kerry called for “another deadline: a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by year’s end.”

Like Mr. Kerry, Sen. Russ Feingold (another potential presidential aspirant), Rep. John Murtha and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi want the United States out of Iraq as soon as possible. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean (who said in December that the “idea that we’re going to win the war in Iraq is an idea which is just plain wrong”) and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, think they have hit upon a way to camouflage the retreat from Iraq: by calling it “redeployment.” The redeployment scheme comes from Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration Pentagon official who now works for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta. Mr. Korb’s redeployment plan would withdraw virtually all American troops from Iraq by 2007, with some being moved to other countries in the region.

When Mr. Korb’s redeployment proposal was unveiled in February, Michael O’Hanlon, a defense specialist with the Brookings Institution, expressed skepticism. “You’re demanding that the political system produce…a miracle,” he said. “Any plan that envisions complete American withdrawal in such a period of time is still a prescription for strategic defeat.” The analysis from Mr. O’Hanlon — a centrist on defense matters — is spot on. It should be kept in mind when listening to the Democratic Party spinners on Iraq.


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