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Why a Democratic President Might Keep Troops in Iraq

edwardsobamahillary1.jpg Doesn’t anybody here want to end this war? That was the question Matt Yglesias asked on Monday:

That we can be in the midst of a primary campaign during which the candidates are supposedly looking to “pander” to the dread damn dirty hippies of the base and yet none of the front-running candidates will make a clear promise to leave Iraq and attack his or her rivals for failing to do the same is rather astounding.

This was in response to a comment by Atrios, who replied shortly afterward:

. . . “residual force” isn’t just a grand idea favored by press wankers, but also many presidential candidates. Without getting into the minutiae there is a difference between a residual force in neighboring relatively friendly countries (Kuwait) and a residual force sitting in the middle of the crossfire, but nonetheless the idea that we need to be sitting there just in case is a widely embraced idea.

. . . I would like the people who advocate this 50,000 forever model to actually spend a few seconds thinking about just what they imagine those troops spending their days doing.

To be fair, though, the New York Times ran an interview-based article on Hillary Clinton a few months ago in which she did exactly that:

In the interview, she suggested that it was likely that the fighting among the Iraqis would continue for some time. In broad terms, her strategy is to abandon the American military effort to stop the sectarian violence and to focus instead on trying to prevent the strife from spreading throughout the region by shrinking and rearranging American troop deployments within Iraq.

. . . “We would not be doing patrols,” she added. “We would not be kicking in doors. We would not be trying to insert ourselves in the middle between the various Shiite and Sunni factions. I do not think that’s a smart or achievable mission for American forces.”

And, as it happens, on Tuesday all three candidates took turns making similar arguments (helpfully documented, with video excerpts, by TPM Cafe). Conceptually, Edwards and Obama came from the same angle as Clinton — that while the U.S. cannot remain in the middle of Iraq’s civil war, we have an interest in helping prevent the one catastrophe that is still avoidable: a regional war where Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the Middle East involve themselves directly as a way to influence who wins the power struggle inside Iraq.

There are valid reasons to favor a 100% withdrawal (which I’ll get to in a moment), but it’s important to recognize that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards are neither crazy nor victims of neocon mind control for leaving the door open to a “residual force.” Indeed, the fact that they cling to these stands despite the clear 2008-primary benefits of taking a stronger antiwar stance should be taken as a sign that they really do believe what they’re saying, and don’t want to make a commitment now they might have to renege on in the White House in 2009.

The simple truth is that, probably as a conscious Bush/Cheney fallback strategy, Iraq has no meaningful air force or other infrastructure for protecting its borders. So if, after a complete U.S. withdrawal, Turkey decided it might be a good idea to grind Kurdistan into a fine powder, they might just take a swing at it. And while it’s far too late to keep Iran from a major role in a post-occupation Iraq, it’s not clear that Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Sunni countries are willing to accept that fait accompli. So all the ingredients for a regional war are there, unless someone is willing to set up an unofficial fence around the Iraqi abyss until the dust, smoke, and blood of the factional infighting has settled.

The only remotely accurate analogy between the situation in Iraq and our longstanding presence in South Korea is that a tripwire of U.S. forces on Iraq’s borders could be an effective deterrent to a wider catastrophe, just as it’s prevented war between Pyongyang and Seoul. Then again, though, it might not — and this is the reality that Edwards, Obama, and Clinton need to face.

After all, we’ve long since lost our ability to impose our will on Iraq or the region (though that hasn’t seeped into Dick Cheney’s brain yet). So any residual presence will need to depend on establishing a non-intervention agreement among Iraq’s neighbors that we can then police… and since this relies on Turkey reconciling itself to Kurdistan’s existence, and Saudi Arabia facing the reality that Iraq’s Shiite majority will govern the country, no such agreement may be possible. Similarly, if our remaining troops become targets for Iraqi factions wanting to draw us back into the fray, a full withdrawal is inevitable — the American public won’t stand for an endless stream of coffins flying back to the States, no matter what the candidates say now.

Also, however morally compelling it might be to try to prevent the worst from happening, it’s already a given that our troops will have no choice but to stand aside and watch the escalating carnage whenever we pull our troops back, either completely or partially. So very painful choices are going to have to be made in any event.

The way that Obama, Edwards, and Clinton ought to frame their stances, to avoid boxing themselves in on either side, is not by promising to keep troops in Iraq or to take all of them out. Rather (as I’ve been trying to say for two years now), we need to reinstate the Powell Doctrine, which used to be the essential contract between our government and a volunteer military. If there’s a mission that we can be essentially certain of accomplishing with minimal casualties — and clear ground rules for when that situation no longer holds — then I’m fine with some troops remaining in Iraq. If not, then every last one should come home. That’s a simple standard I think voters across the political spectrum will find easy to grasp.

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (