One day before the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards has become the first major presidential candidate to favor withdrawing all American troops, including advisers, from Iraq, doing so in response to queries from a leading military correspondent, the New York Times' Michael Gordon.
The positions taken by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, while favoring de-escalation, would leave tens of thousands of American advisers, special forces and substantial back-up troops in Iraq for five years, at least until 2013. The mainstream media also has promoted the view that there is "no way out" of Iraq, according to a comprehensive survey by Peter Hart in Extra! [Nov.-Dec. 2007]. If these views prevail, the US government will be funding, arming, training and defending a repressive sectarian state in Baghdad for years. Already, for example, there are over 50,000 Iraqi prisoners held in detention by the US and Baghdad authorities, the vast majority of them on no charges. Evidence of torture and ethnic cleansing by the Baghdad regime has been accumulated in numerous official reports as well.
In the front-page Times' interview, the traditionally-hawkish Gordon questioned Edwards' whether his proposal would "pull the rug out" from the Iraqi security forces, and pointed out several times that Edwards' position is at odds with "senior American military commanders." However, Gordon failed to note that one such military leader, Gen. James Jones, while supporting more training of the Iraqi security forces, has reported that those forces are sectarian and dysfunctional and even called for "scrapping" the national police force now conducting counterinsurgency under Gen. Davis Petraeus' command.
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Edwards' thinking seems to flow from his populist orientation: "I honestly believe this in my soul, we are propping up their bad behavior", he told Gordon, "I mean really, how many American lives and how much American taxpayer money are we going to continue to expend waiting for these [Iraqi] political leaders to do something?"
The political impact of Edwards' statement is unpredictable. It may sway some Bill Richardson or Dennis Kucinich voters to caucus instead for Edwards Thursday night. It may cause a few defections from Clinton or Obama. It may play out in New Hampshire and later primaries, if Edwards is deemed "viable" by the media after Iowa. And to the extent that Edwards' campaign continues to be a force in the national election, his Iraq position could become a rallying point in the Democratic platform debate.
Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement [new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.