Parsing the Democrats’ Iraq Plans

As they travel the country searching for votes, each of the big three Democratic candidates for president has pledged to withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq during their first year in office.

They also all say they oppose the construction and maintenance of permanent bases in Iraq. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say they’re planing to remove approximately 6,000 American soldiers from Iraq every month during the first year of their presidency.

"We will begin to withdraw our troops within 60 days," Clinton promised last Sunday during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press program.

"I think we can take out one to two brigades a month," she added. "I will put increasing pressure on the Iraqi government. I will work with all the countries in the region and others that have an interest in the stability of Iraq."

Obama’s official position also includes redeploying one to two brigades of combat troops from Iraq every month during the first year of his presidency. Such a plan would leave approximately 50,000 American troops in Iraq at the end of 2009.

"The only troops that would remain would be those who would protect U.S. bases and U.S. civilians as well as to engage in counter-terrorism activities in Iraq," he said in an MSNBC debate last September.

Obama has also said some U.S. troops would stay behind to train Iraqi Security Forces.

Of the three, John Edwards has been the most sweeping in his desire to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, saying he envisions less than 5,000 troops would stay behind specifically to guard the U.S. Embassy and "humanitarian workers" in Iraq.

I think somewhere in the neighborhood of a brigade will have to be used to accomplish that," he said in the MSNBC debate, "between 3,500 and 5,000 troops."

With the main Democratic contenders positions so similar, observers are looking toward the politicians’ voting history to see how they might act if elected.

"Unlike Barack Obama, who was against the war from the beginning, and John Edwards, whose shift to an antiwar position was earlier and apparently sincere, Hillary Clinton came out against the war barely a year ago when public opinion polls showed it would be virtually impossible to get the presidential nomination unless she did otherwise," said Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and author of a three-part series on the candidates’ foreign policies for the online journal Foreign Policy in Focus.

Zunes argued that among the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is the least likely to end the war.

"Hillary Clinton has supported Bush policy from the beginning," Zunes told OneWorld. "The Bush administration has also claimed that they want to pull back combat brigades and lessen the U.S. troop presence, but Hillary Clinton, like the Bush Administration, has basically said that whether or not we can do this depends on the situation on the ground and given that the situation on the ground is unlikely to improve much, I am personally skeptical that a Clinton administration would be very different than a continuation of the Bush administration."

That’s not how Representative Lynn Woolsey sees it. The California Congresswoman is co-chair of the Congressional Out of Iraq Caucus. She has endorsed Hillary Clinton.

"She’s changed her mind on the Iraq war," Woolsey told OneWorld. "People do things that they get to change their minds on. She’s now voted three times for deadlines to bring our troops home – one was as recent as December – and she’s committed that she will not vote for any funds other than to redeploy our troops."

Woolsey also cited Clinton’s "experience" as a senator and first lady as reasons for her endorsement. "I believe she’s the one that, when she’s elected she will be on the ground running from the day that she’s elected," Woolsey said.

Professor Zunes doesn’t see that change, though. He says Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisors indicate that she would continue to take a hawkish stand if elected.

"Richard Holbrooke, who Clinton would likely name as Secretary of State, was one of the strongest supporters of the war – even accusing those who objected to the war of disloyalty to America," Zunes said, adding Clinton would likely appoint "other hawks who served in her husband’s administration.

By contrast, Zunes said, Obama’s advisors include the anti-genocide activist Samantha Powers of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Professor Shakir Mustafa says many in the Arab world are excited about Obama. Mustafa, a professor of Arabic languages at Boston University, grew up in Baghdad and most of his family still lives in Iraq.

"People in the Middle East perceived that change is possible when Obama entered the race and became a viable candidate," Mustafa told OneWorld. "He voted against the war. Also people perceive because of his color or his origin that he will be more open to the third world than the rest of the candidates."

Mustafa cautions, however, that there are major problems with Obama’s plan to leave tens of thousands of so-called non-combat troops in Iraq. He says those troops would easily end up in combat if they’re attacked.

"It don’t think that’s practical," he said. "It might be practical and acceptable to the Kurds who are willing to accommodate such a presence," he said. "But I don’t think in the rest of Iraq it will be viable. I think they will be a target because there is large scale opposition to any permanent presence of American forces or any foreign forces in the Arab part of the country."

"They will be open to attacks," he said, "and they will open up another scar in the relationship between Iraq and the Untied States."

Bennett Ramberg, who served in the State Department of the first President Bush, predicts that none of the top Democratic contenders will remove large numbers of U.S. troops if elected.

The Democrats don’t want to be "saddled" with the debate over: "Who lost Iraq?" he said.

"That’s what they were saddled with in the late 1940s: ‘Who lost China?’ They don’t want to be saddled with that again. They kept going in Vietnam because they didn’t want to be saddled with ‘Who lost Vietnam?’ And so it was Richard Nixon who, after the losses of thousands of more American lives, finally got us out of Vietnam and then South Vietnam collapsed."

"Are the Democrats ready to be saddled with ‘Who lost Iraq?’" Ramberg asked. "I have my doubts."

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is also running for the Democratic nomination for president. He pledges to remove all U.S. troops and contractors from Iraq within his first few months in office. Kucinich received 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and is garnering similar support in national polls.