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.
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Also on the benefits side is a stable Iraq, which seems to have pulled back from a civil war. The Iraqis are beginning to show signs of political progress, proponents of a sustained US effort say. Earlier this month, the Iraqi parliament passed three pieces of legislation that some experts say suggest a growing willingness by the country's ethnic and political factions to forge hard bargains. The three items were a national budget, an amnesty law expected to affect mostly Sunni detainees, and a law defining provincial powers.Skip to next paragraph
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But critics, while acknowledging some progress, say the proof of these latest measures will be in their execution. They add that, after passing the three laws under considerable duress, the parliament adjourned for a five-week respite.
The costs ledger
In a recent talk in Washington, Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania outlined what he called the "hidden costs to the war in Iraq." The former marine and first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress focused on the negative impact the five-year-old war is having on the armed forces and on US national security. Everyone knows that nearly 4,000 US troops have died in Iraq, he said, but less discussed is the dire effect on military families of extended and repeat deployments.
The economic costs are less felt because the US is "put[ting] a trillion-dollar war on a credit card and leav[ing] the bills for our children to pay," Representative Murtha said. He noted that the cost of 2-1/2 days in Iraq could restore $800 million that President Bush cut from the federal highway program.
On another level, the Iraq war could be demonstrating to the world the growing limits of US power, says Andrew Bacevich, a foreign-policy expert at Boston University and another Vietnam veteran. The clearest legacy of the troop "surge" in Iraq, he adds, is that it has enabled Mr. Bush to bequeath the war to his successor.
Cordesman of CSIS says his recent trip revealed a number of threats that could spell "defeat" for Iraq, among them: the central government's failure to provide and improve services and to develop a corruption-free and efficient system for transferring funds to the provinces, a lack of jobs for idle young men, a failure to incorporate sectarian populations into the security forces, and continued meddling from Iran in Iraq's affairs.
Cordesman says a defining moment of his recent trip came when an aid worker told him that the US effort would never result in a Western-style democracy and that the best the US could hope for was what the worker called an "Iraqcracy" – a stable and secure government, but one functioning well below the higher concept the Bush administration envisioned.
Between now and November, voters in the presidential race will be deciding if that is enough.