Election 08: The Candidates on Iraq

Despite the talk among public figures and commentators about the need for unifying ideas in today's political arena, the presidential candidates and their policies regarding Iraq couldn't be less suited to cross the aisle of partisan politics. In the presidential race, Senators Clinton and Obama have both put forward proposals to end the military conflict-- by bringing troops home or redeploying them elsewhere. Senator McCain believes that we need to stick with the status-quo and advocates sending even more troops.

Each of the campaigns has extensive information about the Iraq war on their websites. I would suggest, however, that women voters pay attention to more than just each candidates position on the Iraq war. Whether one supported or disapproved of our nation's decision to invade Iraq, the question for us now is what we're intending to learn from the experience. A good friend of mine working in Iraq to rebuild its army (who opposed the Iraq war, as did I) recently told me "we might leave Iraq, but Iraq's not going to leave us". This thought has both positives and negatives. Iraq has imposed huge costs in terms of blood and treasure. The loss of life is astonishing. To date 4000 American military personal and countless Iraqi civilians have died. Both Americans and Iraqis are going to be paying the price of "regime change" for years to come. But the silver lining of this war is the potential for a dramatic re evaluation of US National Security, some serious introspection into our own democracy and a thorough evaluation of how we involve ourselves with the rest of the world. Here is a flavor of what the candidates have been saying:

Senator Clinton has a three-step plan for Iraq policy: 1. bring our troops home 2. work to bring stability to the region, and 3.replace military force with a new diplomatic initiative to engage countries around the world in securing Iraq's future. A committed and well-traveled internationalist, Clinton recognizes that US power is more than just our ability to dominate and coerce and that we must win back the world's confidence and trust in order to be secure. In a recent speech, she declared "the more the world regards us with suspicion rather than admiration, the more difficult it is to confront these [global] challenges" Clinton's biggest obstacle on her Iraq war policy is overcoming the fact that she voted to go to war back in 2002. This is a considerable sticking point among the Democratic base and Clinton clearly is trying to woo them to her side by consistently recognizing the larger context of today's threats to our security. For example, by saying that in today's world "we are confronted by yet another new face of war and a new reality of global interdependence. It is a moment of peril and of promise. How we proceed is entirely up to us. We can repair the damage that has been done to our security and our standing over these past six years. We can rebuild our alliances and restore our moral authority, and reestablish our leadership in the world." Clinton introduced legislation in 2007 to build a political case against President Bush's "surge" policy. The Iraq Troops Protection and Reduction Act was introduced in February last year and shortly thereafter, she took steps to de-authorize the war entirely.

Senator Obama's position on Iraq entails a phased redeployment of American forces from Iraq in a manner that protects U.S. troops and exerts leverage to achieve the political settlement among the Iraqis. He introduced legislation last year, The Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007 which has provided a template for many other working documents and efforts to bring the war to a close. Obama is the only one among the three candidates who took a stand against going to war in Iraq--a significant risk considering that he was running for his Illinois Senate seat at the time. His current plan would begin withdrawing our troops engaged in combat operations at a pace of one or two brigades every month, to be completed by the end of next year. He would call for a new constitutional convention in Iraq, convened with the United Nations, which would not adjourn until Iraq's leaders reach a new accord on reconciliation. He would use presidential leadership to surge our diplomacy with all of the nations of the region on behalf of a new regional security compact. And he would take immediate steps to confront the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Iraq. Senator Obama often gets flack from opponents and conventional pundits because he lacks "experience". Yet this argument is backward looking and lacks credibility when you consider that he is not only interested in the rest of the world, he is of the rest of the world. His top advisor Susan Rice explains . Senator Obama's biography is important for understanding how he views US security. He is the child of an American mother and an African father. He lived abroad for part of his life but has roots in the midwest. Leading the charge for "Change", Obama consistently puts forward a worldview that sees the world as linked rather than ranked. And his popularity among young voters is a testament to their belief in his ability to update and modernize how America relates to the world--starting with Iraq.

Senator John McCain vigorously opposes the Iraq policy posture of both Democratic rivals. Per his calculus, keeping the maximum number of American troops on the ground there is requisite to Iraq becoming a viable state and that we must be there as long as it takes. He advocates a "clear, hold, and build" counterinsurgency strategy, believing that military force is a key ingredient in securing the space needed for civilian reconstruction. The utility of military force, I believe, is what distinguishes McCain most dramatically from the Democrats and from others who advocate ending the US combat troop commitment. Whereas they come down believing that the use of force itself has become counter-productive, Senator McCain sees the benefits of the troop presence outweighing the costs. And while all three candidates call for political reconciliation, these goals may be mutually exclusive, i.e. the continuing use of violent force by the Americans is actually what keeps the political reconciliation out of reach. Despite being at odds with the other candidates, McCain has a similarly far reaching worldview. He believes that both the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan must be viewed in the larger context of marginalizing radical extremists and cannot be viewed in isolation from our broader strategy. In his ideal outcome, these two nations will cease being sources of extremism and instability and instead, over time, become pillars of stability, tolerance, and democracy.

In a recent speech, he declared "If we are successful in pulling together a global coalition for peace and freedom -- if we lead by shouldering our international responsibilities and pointing the way to a better and safer future for humanity, I believe we will gain tangible benefits as a nation." McCain's open-ended commitment to a military presence in Iraq may well become the major obstacle to this long term goal, however, as the cardinal reason for declining American influence is the Iraq war and the fact that, as a nation, we have used the military as a favorite policy tool while marginalizing diplomacy, prevention and long-term economic development.

A feature of this presidential race worth remarking is how each candidate goes out of his or her way to praise the military, to point out their service and say thanks for their sacrifice. The separation of the troops from the civilian-made policies of Iraq mark an important turning point for us as a nation. This recognition of power dynamics i.e. who makes the ultimate decisions about the use of force to solve perceived threats-- did not happen enough after Viet Nam and the military became politicized, polarized and increasingly isolated from the rest of society. Thus far the level of civility on this topic among all the candidates as they discuss Iraq has remained above the fray and let's hope it stays that way as November approaches. That said, voters should be wary of extreme issue ads or mud slinging about who is "strongest" on national security. If anything, our experience in Iraq requires that we inventory our values, beliefs and policy tools to determine what real strength and real security are in today's world. See this Call to Action for an example of what we need.

I worked on Capitol Hill for nearly a decade, and over that time I had the chance to interact with the congressional staff of each of the Presidential candidates. I was impressed by all of them (and I'm not just being nice as I definately don't feel this way about all the staff I worked with) As in any professional capacity, who you surround yourself with is an indication of character. I also think each of these candidates knows a great deal about substance, has introduced important new legislation and would move us out of the rut we've been in for the past 8 years. For individuals looking to fill out their knowledge of the candidates, I suggest looking at this site which collates issue-based report cards on Members of Congress.

As I watch this race to the finish line, I'm going to ultimately vote for the candidate who, I believe, is positioned best to really move America in a fundamentally different direction in the world and who will take on the backward looking inertia in our governing institutions by putting forward a philosophy of government and a vision for American security that unifies the American people around problem solving. This will require abandoning the tactic of rallying the party base through demonization of your opponent and garnering public favor through fear. After all, if there's anything we've learned from our five year experience In Iraq, the security policies that result from this sort of politicking hasn't worked out too well for anybody.

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