It was obvious that the reporter, in attempting to give his question some context by referring to what President Bush had said before Christmas, misjudged the mood of Senator cum presidential candidate John McCain: Reporter: “President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years…”
McCain: “Make it a hundred…”
Perhaps Senator McCain was still feeling the New Year’s Day humor – the question was asked on January 3rd. Or maybe McCain was “out-Bushing” the president on strategy in Iraq. After all, he is not reticent in reminding voters that he had frequently and publicly criticized the original White House war strategy long before it became “fashionable” to do so among Republicans.
Contrast the positions on troops and permanent (or “enduring”) bases in Iraq shared by the three “leading” Republican presidential candidates with the three “leading” Democratic candidates as the latter finally articulated their positions during last night’s debate in Las Vegas.
The question of “how long” U.S. troops would be in Iraq came not from the press moderators but during the segment in which the candidates asked each other a prepared question on any subject (an “innovation” by NBC News). Democrats believe that Bush will try to convince the public that he, like Moses, has led the country to an oasis of security from which they can see the “ocean of peace” he promised in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and the upper India subcontinent.
The price, at least the as expected by the “top three” Democratic contenders, is that Bush will engineer a continuing commitment of U.S. blood and treasure that his successor(s) will be obliged to honor. Indeed, the Iraqi Minister of Defense just this week spoke of a ten-year presence of U.S. troops – until 2018 at least.
Also expected is a dip in the number of troops and fatalities in the war just before the November U.S. general election to create the perception that peace has arrived. Is it just coincidental that the additional “surge” of 3,200 Marines into Afghanistan will end about Labor Day, just before the home stretch for the election?
What was striking about last night’s Democratic debate was the way all three candidates worked their language to minimize distinctions among their positions while not ceding anything to the G.O.P.
It reminded me of volleyball, with Obama fielding the ball from a phantom server.
Obama: “I have put forward a plan that will get our troops out by the end of 2009. My first job as president… is going to be to call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say, ‘You’ve got a new mission’…to responsibly, carefully, but deliberately
start to phase out our involvement there.”
This puts the ball almost too far forward for Clinton to get it without touching the net (she has to respond to the moderator’s challenge to match Obama’s 2009 deadline)
Clinton: “I’m on record as saying exactly that, as soon as I become president, we will start withdrawing within 60 days. We will move as carefully and responsibly
as we can, one or two brigades a month… and we’ll have nearly all the troops out by the end of the year, I hope.”
This tips the ball into the backcourt toward Edwards –
Edwards: “I’ve actually…been the most aggressive and said that I will have all the combat troops out
in the first year that I’m president….I will end combat missions
. And while I’m president, there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq
When challenged that they all had declined to “take the 2009 pledge” last September, (thereby going “out of bounds”), each demurred.
Obama: “Your question [in September] was, could I guarantee all troops would be out of Iraq. I have been very specific in saying we will not have permanent bases there
. I will end
the war as we understand it in combat missions
. But we are going to have to protect our embassy
[and]our civilians. We’re engaged in humanitarian activity there. We…have to have some presence that allows us t strike if al-Qaeda is creating bases inside of Iraq, So I cannot guarantee that we’re not going…to maintain some troop presence there, but is not going to be
engaged in…this sort of permanent bases and permanent military occupation
that George Bush seems…intent on.”
The ball bounced back to Clinton –
Clinton: “Well…obviously we have to be responsible
, we have to protect our embassy
– who deftly deflected it toward Edwards for the set-up –
Edwards: “[I]t is dishonest to suggest that you’re not going to have troops there to protect the embassy
….There is, however, a difference between us….I will have all combat troops out in the first year
that I’m president, and there will be no further combat missions
, and there will be no permanent military bases.
But Obama, trying to keep in the play – tipped the ball into the back court again –
Obama: “I think it’s important…to say that you may go after terrorist bases inside Iraq if they should form, in which case there would potentially be a combat aspect, or you’re not. And…if you’re not, then that presents some problems in terms of the long-term safety and security of the United States.”
Fortunately, Edwards was still positioned well enough to keep the ball in the air –
Edwards: …as long as you keep combat troops in Iraq, you continue the occupation. If you keep military bases in Iraq, you're continuing the occupation. The occupation must end
. As respects al Qaeda …I would keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait in case it became necessary, but that is different than keeping troops stationed inside Iraq because keeping combat troops [in Iraq]… and continuing combat missions…is a continuation of the occupation. And I think a continuation of the occupation continues the problem, not just in reality, but in perception that America's occupying the country.”
– long enough for Obama to regain his footing and make the point:
Obama: “I think there’s a distinction without a difference here. If it is appropriate for us to keep that strike force outside of Iraq, then that obviously would be preferable. The point is you might have [to use] that capacity.”
Hardly an oasis, but maybe not a complete mirage.