Election '08: For candidates, Iraq debate shifts
The question used to be 'withdraw or not'? But now, some progress in Iraq is prompting a more nuanced discussion.
While it may have been eclipsed by the economy, Iraq is almost certain to remain a top issue in the presidential campaign – though perhaps in a different way than anticipated just a few months ago.Skip to next paragraph
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Until recently, the debate over Iraq was framed in simple terms: withdraw or not? Democrats were essentially on one side, and the Republicans on the other.
But now a sustained reduction in violence, as well as still-fledgling but gathering signs of Iraqi political progress, is adding up to a new focus for the Iraq debate. The question, some experts say, is now less one of whether the United States will remain in Iraq under the next president, and more what kind and size of presence it will be over the course of the next presidency.
"There is no one who is planning today to have either [the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan] won before the end of the next presidency," says Anthony Cordesman, a national-security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
That does not mean the US effort is destined to remain at current troop or combat levels, adds Mr. Cordesman. But it could mean that what he calls "unrealistic" talk of rapid withdrawal will be replaced with discussion of such complex issues as advisory and training efforts and development and governance aid.
The candidates' positions
Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a firm supporter of the war and has received flak from Democratic candidate Barack Obama for suggesting that Iraq could see the kind of sustained US involvement that continues in Germany and Japan more than a half century after World War II.
Both Senator Obama and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, speak in terms of a quick withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. Yet both also leave the door open to continuing to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq and to pursuing other goals such as training Iraqi security forces.
Discounting political rhetoric, Cordesman – who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Iraq and Afghanistan – says a crucial determining factor for Iraq will be the quality of the transition from the Bush presidency to the next. "It will be absolutely critical to have a smooth transfer of plans, resources, command, and action from the current presidency to the next presidency," he says. "If that falters or is inadequate, it could have … devastating consequences."
The Iraq debate will probably zero in on costs versus benefits. Topping the benefits ledger for war advocates is mounting evidence that Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated forces are on the run and have been denied much of the terrain they had open access to even a few months ago. That's not only a plus for Iraq, but also for the war on terror, advocates say. Critics, however, continue to insist that the real terrorist threat to the US is in Pakistan, which they say has been neglected as a result of the Bush administration's focus on Iraq.