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Cut and run isn't cutting it with these Democrats

November 05, 2006|Matthew Dallek | MATTHEW DALLEK, a former Democratic speechwriter on Capitol Hill, is the author of "The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics."

ANALYSTS AND political pundits expect that voters disillusioned with the war in Iraq will vote Democratic on Tuesday in the hope that more Democrats in Congress will force the Bush administration to begin withdrawing U.S. forces. Ironically, the majority of the Democrats in tight political races are not the cut-and-run types that President Bush's senior strategist, Karl Rove, would have you believe. If elected, they are unlikely to lead any charge toward the exits in Iraq.

Many of these candidates for Congress have served in the military. Virginia U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb is a decorated Vietnam War veteran. Pennsylvania Democratic House candidate Patrick Murphy won a Bronze Star in Iraq. One of the party's rising stars is Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq when her helicopter was shot down. Even Pennsylvania Rep. John P. Murtha, the decorated ex-Marine who the White House has tried to paint as a "Defeatocrat," supports a "redeployment of our military from Iraq [that] does not equate to abandoning Iraq."

The media's coverage of the midterm campaigns has tended to portray Democratic candidates as all over the map on Iraq, but in truth, Democrats are more united on what to do in Iraq than at any point since 2002, when they debated whether to authorize the use of force to topple Saddam Hussein: They are not in favor of cutting and running.

True, Democratic office-seekers aren't very specific about what they would do in Iraq. Few offer such detailed plans as that of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) who proposes that Iraq's Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites form three autonomous regions in the country. Instead, they generally call for "a phased redeployment" of U.S. troops in Iraq and across the region to help stabilize Iraq and free up troops so they can fight the war on terror.

For instance, Duckworth, who is seeking a congressional seat in Illinois, believes that the U.S. cannot "simply pull up stakes" in Iraq because it would "create a security vacuum" and "risk allowing [Iraq] ... to become a base for terrorists." She supports a pullout of U.S. forces on a schedule based on the training of Iraq's armed forces.

Democrat Bob Casey Jr., who is trying to unseat Sen. Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, believes that 2006 "should be a year of transition for the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security and governance." To that end, he has promised to "push for a clear exit strategy" for U.S. forces that could include redeployment but would not result in an imminent pullout.

In describing his position on Iraq, Webb, who is in a close race with Republican Sen. George Allen in Virginia, quotes former President Eisenhower: "Any answer that dishonestly pledged an end to war in Korea by any imminent, exact date would brand its speaker as a deceiver."

Opposing a fixed timetable for a pullout, Webb says that "in the short term, we could move our troops out of the country but within the region" and "contain the terrorist threat within Iraq without continuing our occupation."

Like his fellow Democrats, he too studiously avoids firm deadlines and timetables.

Taken together, Democrats running in competitive House districts tend to be more conservative on Iraq than the congressional Democratic leadership. While denouncing Bush's "stay the course" approach, they have avoided talk about quitting Iraq in the near future. In Georgia's 12th Congressional District, for instance, incumbent Rep. John Barrow opposes "an immediate troop withdrawal or an arbitrary timeline for withdrawal from Iraq." In Indiana, Brad Ellsworth, who is poised to unseat GOP Rep. John Hostettler, has pledged to work "toward turning Iraq back to the Iraqi government" but has rejected "a public timetable."

Then there's Nevada, where another strong Democratic challenger, Jill Derby, backs the idea of laying down "clear benchmarks of progress" and vows to "finish what we started" in Iraq. "I'll stand up to leaders in my own party and oppose an immediate withdrawal," Derby has said.

By contrast, Democratic leaders in Washington have adopted the more aggressive position of favoring redeployment that includes specific dates to begin a phased withdrawal.

The developments last summer laid the foundation for this approach. First, 37 of 44 Democratic senators voted yes on an amendment, written by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), that repudiated the Bush administration's "current open-ended commitment of United States forces in Iraq" as unsustainable and called on it to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces in 2006. But a different amendment establishing a timetable leading to a near-total withdrawal by July 1 garnered only 13 Democratic votes.

Then, at the end of July, senior congressional Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, sent a letter to Bush urging "a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq" that "should begin before the end of 2006." They not only rejected Bush's "stay the course" policy in Iraq, they also called on the administration to "transition" U.S. forces "to a more limited mission focused on counter-terrorism" and assistance for Iraqi armed forces.

Whether the Democrats elected Tuesday will follow their party's leadership on Iraq remains to be seen. But what many commentators are calling a national referendum on Iraq is unlikely to produce a congressional clamor for immediate withdrawal.

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