The Trap That Is Iraq
Two of the other Democratic hopefuls should move fast to exploit Clinton and Obama's obvious weak spot over withdrawing US forces.
Hidden in plain sight is the one issue still capable of blowing up the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
It isn't Iran, outsider-insider, lobbyist relations or healthcare.
It's the war in Iraq.
The mass media illusion - and also delusion - is that the Democrats, generally, are "anti-war", especially in contrast to the Bush/Cheney-tethered Republicans. Vaguely, anti-war is meant to suggest favourable disposition to ending the madness.
But the suggestion is false. The truth that could yet destabilise the race and consign consultant Mark Penn's inevitability lectures about client Hillary Clinton to the trash can is that the major candidates are not as anti-war as they seem.
And in the two most important cases, they are arguably not anti-war at all, merely anti-Bush. With varying emphases Clinton and Barack Obama have yet to take a deep breath and propose a plausible end to either an American combat role in the conflict, the ongoing, de facto US occupation of the broken country or a quasi-colonial role in its alleged governance. They remain Bush-lite.
Two of the candidates - above all Bill Richardson but also John Edwards - have a quite different vision of their first year as potential presidents. What isn't clear is whether either is willing to make this crucial difference of opinion the issue down the stretch before the Iowa caucuses and the first primaries are held. If either or both do, the political equation could still change.
The solid clue to these differences popped up in the last of the Democrats' joint appearances, when moderator Tim Russert asked the top tier individually if any of them were prepared to pledge that all combat troops would be gone from Iraq by the end of a first presidential term in 2013. Clinton and Obama said they were not - truthfully.
Edwards, for some reason sucked along in the undertow, chimed in a third refusal. That was a mistake, as he has subsequently realised if not exactly acknowledged. The truth is that Edwards is an American version of the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who has skillfully reduced the British armed presence to no more than 2,500 people, all stationed outside the often murderous city of Basra on the sensible premise that his nation's security is not threatened if Shia militia X chooses to stage a fire fight with Shia militia Y on any given day.
Edwards envisages an American presence that is gradually, over the course of a year, reduced to a single brigade (perhaps double the size of the current British force), whose sole mission would be the protection of the American diplomatic and aid missions in the country. Any peacenik can live with that.
Richardson would go further: everyone with a gun all the way out of the country within six to eight months. It's a pace that borders on the precipitous but that was chosen by the New Mexico governor after consultation with people who know the region well.
One of them is Bruce Riedel - both a CIA and a National Security Council staff veteran - who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy. In a Foreign Affairs article last spring, Riedel, as a true believer in a worldwide campaign against violent extremism and the endangered mission in Afghanistan, made a sound case for military disengagement from Iraq, calling it "more of a trap than an opportunity". The case can also be made soundly by those who know that whatever chance the fractured country has will come from international reconstruction and diplomatic toil, not no-end-in-sight combat.
Clinton has argued that a commitment to end the US role as combat-occupier is impossible until she takes office and discovers the true state of things. Her position is fatuous. She is already in possession of all the information needed to take a position one way or the other. The stance she takes, vaguely promising to end the war if President Bush hasn't, is not even close to the clarity Americans should insist upon.
If anything, Obama is worse. He still talks of a reduced US military presence, prowling the hinterland in search of al-Qaida in Iraq remnants and policing the country's borders. What neither candidate has been willing to say is how small a force and how much less than the ridiculous, nearly $10bn monthly pace of war spending he and she is prepared to support.
This is why Obama has spent so much time this fall celebrating his opposition to the US invasion five years ago and attempting to make an issue of Clinton's recent vote for a Senate resolution branding Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation. He talks about his past and Iran's future so much because he cannot talk effectively about the war in Iraq's future.
Following the most recent Democratic debate, nothing happened in the press, which should teach Edwards and Richardson that the press in not capable of leading a debate about anything important this cycle. If there is to be a stretch drive dominated by important differences over the most important issue they will have to lead it themselves.
The opportunity, worth seizing, comes next week in Philadelphia at the next joint appearance of the candidates.
Tom Oliphant is a former journalist and columnist for the Boston Globe. His book, Utter Incompetents - Ego and Ideology in the Age of Bush, is published in November 2007.
© 2007 The Guardian