Rating the Presidential Candidates on Iraq, Another Agonizing Year Ahead

While most peace activists are evaluating the Democrats, I would rank Rudolph Giuliani as the most dangerous of all the presidential candidates in a long while, because his Iraq and Iran policies are the work of the most hawkish neo-conservatives who promoted the Iraq quagmire and now want to bomb Iran as soon as possible. Though far better than Giuliani, Sen. Joseph Biden is the worst Democratic candidate because of his demand that partition be imposed on Iraq. The front-running Democrat, Sen. Hillary Clinton, is so ambiguous on Iraq that she risks losing the general election by driving enough of the progressive vote to inevitable third party candidates.

Giuliani is advised by a network of neo-con hawks led by Norman Podhoretz who call for a Cold War-type struggle against "Islamofascism", the immediate bombing of Iran [Commentary, June 2007], the right to assassinate the leaders of Iran and North Korea, and the assumption that all American Muslims are suspect. [NY Times]. They are a well-organized machine with millions of dollars available to attack MoveOn and bankroll campus campaigns against the new foreign enemy of Islamofascism, which they believe can and must be militarily defeated.

Principled Democrats with single-digit support at present should be considered as strong voices against the war, and possible contributors to a long-term progressive movement, but not as likely nominees. Among them, Biden, who could become secretary of state under a Democratic president, takes the most dangerous position, favoring a de-facto breakup or partitioning of Iraq, with each religious group policing its own areas. That would mean forced migration for millions of Iraqis from their homes in Shi'a-dominated Basra, for example, to Sunni-dominated Anbar province. Sen. Chris Dodd, while taking a strong position against the confirmation of Bush's nominee for attorney general, has been murky in his anti-war views during the campaign. While supporting a 12-18 month pullout, he also wants American troops redeployed away from major Iraqi cities to the border regions and to Kurdistan, Kuwait, Qatar, and Afghanistan. [speech Oct. 12, 2006]

Bill Richardson, another candidate for a future cabinet position, takes the cleanest position of all on Iraq, promising to remove all American troops within one year while launching diplomatic efforts towards regional stability. And of course, Dennis Kucinich is an anchor for the anti-war community.

Among the current front-runners, John Edwards takes the strongest anti-war position, calling for an immediate troop withdrawal of 40-50,000 US troops, a withdrawal of remaining troops in 12-18 months, and diplomatic peace initiatives. Edwards' position includes a significant loophole, however, for "sufficient" US troops to remain in the region to prevent a terrorist haven or ethnic genocide. Edwards also is on record favoring the intensifying of training for Iraqi security forces. [NYT, Feb. 26, 2007]

Sen. Barack Obama's position has somewhat improved with its latest nuances. He favors a steady withdrawal taking 16 months. [NYT, Nov. 2]. Backing away from open-ended support of American trainers in the midst of a dirty sectarian war, Obama says he would support trainers only if the Baghdad regime commits to political reconciliation and reforms its sectarian police, an almost impossible scenario to imagine. Further, Obama would not allow American trainers to be placed "in harm's way." But he also favors an unspecified number of American troops in the region able to conduct "counter-terrorism" or return in the "short term" to Iraq in the event of genocide against civilians. Obama seems trapped between his tendency to build a "new center" and the need to sharpen his differences over Iraq with Hillary Clinton.

Obama correctly links a withdrawal plan with motivating other countries to engage in regional stabilization: "Once it's clear that we're not intending to stay there for 10 years or 20 years, all these parties have an interest in figuring out how do we adjust in a way that stabilizes the situation." And Obama has toughened his stand against escalating the conflict to Iran. Instead he would engage in "aggressive personal diplomacy" including a promise to end bush's policy of regime change in exchange for Iranian cooperation in regional stability.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee at this point, remains the most indecipherable of the candidates on Iraq. On the one hand, she pledges "to end the war" and has voted against the Bush surge and in favor of a March 2008 withdrawal deadline for combat troops. She has suggested, but not insisted on, cutting off funding for Iraqi security forces and private contractors unless reforms by the Iraqi government are guaranteed. [NYT, Feb. 26, 2007] On the other hand, she most clearly favors leaving a large number of Americans, a "scaled down force", in Iraq indefinitely to fight al-Qaeda, train the Iraqi army, and resist Iranian encroachment. [NYT, Nov. 2, 2007]. She cast an unsettling hawkish vote to define the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, which may have reflected her positioning for the November election, and has telegraphed a message that Iraq is "right in the heart of the oil region...[and] directly in opposition to our interests, to the interests of the region, to Israel's interests." [NYT, Mar. 15, 2007]

Clearly, anti-war opinion in the early primary states will be a major factor determining the candidates' positioning. Edwards has put pressure on Obama and Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Obama puts pressure on Clinton across the board. But Clinton already is trending towards her general election platform against another "vast right-wing conspiracy." In the short-term, she wants to be positioned as sufficiently anti-war and leave Edwards and Obama appearing more "extreme", which may be a misreading of public opinion. The other Democratic candidates will seek to appear more anti-war than Clinton because the issue is their only way to gain traction with the multitudes of anti-war voters in the primaries. Clinton depends on rallying Democrats and independents to her side by contrasting herself with Giuliani, Mitt Romney or John McCain. Whether that approach can prevail, or seem too frustratingly evasive, remains to be seen in the long campaign ahead.

If Clinton gains the nomination on an Iraq platform that disappoints enough independents and Obama or Edwards supporters, a two-percent space will open for Ralph Nader and/or Cynthia McKinney to possibly make the difference in the November election. Recent polls show Clinton in a virtual dead heat with Giuliani among independent voters who otherwise lean Democratic. If she refuses to take a more forthright stand on Iraq, she may try returning to her domestic strength by arguing that unlimited and wasteful Republican spending on Iraq will prevent her from achieving national health care, a priority issue for a majority of Americans where Giuliani is clearly on the wrong side. As president, she could describe her slow troop withdrawals as a peace dividend, a transfer of resources from war to health care for veterans and all Americans.

Or worst case, her appearance of wobbling on Iraq/Iran could reinforce a voter perception of such principled and unpredictable opportunism that the Democrats could lose a close election once again.

Tom Hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq [Akashic, 2007]. He has not endorsed any candidate for president. He is a national board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and the editorial board of the Nation magazine.

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