On Iraq policy, next U.S. president will have to adapt

Despite their rhetoric, '08 candidates try to keep their options open.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Veteran to veteran: Presidential candidate John McCain greeted a serviceman during a Capitol Hill ceremony March 13 honoring veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
M. Spencer Green/AP
Democrats: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say they'll draw down troops.
Jason Cohn/Reuters
Democrats: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say they'll draw down troops.
Rich Clabaugh

In the military, there's an adage that even the best plans don't survive contact with the enemy – a recognition that any approach must be adapted to the circumstances of the moment. The same might be said of the major presidential candidates when it comes to how each intends to tackle the war in Iraq.

However adamant they are now about their respective plans, the candidates will have to conform their positions to whatever security and political situations they confront as commander in chief next year, say analysts.

The two Democrats' plans to withdraw US troops quickly, for instance, may be tempered by the practical realities of what that entails. If Republican Sen. John McCain is president, he would need to be responsive to the electorate and find a US troop level for Iraq that is sustainable.

The quest for wiggle room came into relief recently when an aide to Sen. Barack Obama (D) disclosed that Mr. Obama's plan to remove most US troops from Iraq within 16 months was "a best-case scenario," a nod to those who suggest that Obama's plan is unrealistic. That aide, Samantha Power, left the campaign. But supporters of each of the candidates acknowledge that positions could change at least slightly when any one of them gets into office.

"Anything can always change because you have to deal with the situation when you inherit it," says Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania, a retired rear admiral and a supporter of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Senator Clinton has not offered a "date certain" for the last troops to exit but has said that, within 60 days of taking office, she would want the Pentagon to produce a withdrawal plan.

Representative Sestak does not expect Clinton's withdrawal plans to change a lot if she's elected president, but he acknowledges that direct counsel from the Pentagon staff could result in a slight tweak of her plan to remove troops at the rate of one to two brigades a month, to suit the realities at the time.

The Obama campaign, which has focused on what it calls the "strategic blunder" of invading Iraq in the first place, says the 16-month time frame is realistic. "We need to draw down our combat brigades, we hope roughly at the pace of one to two a month," Susan Rice, an Obama adviser, said earlier this month. "We have to calibrate that, obviously, to circumstances on the ground."

Senator McCain has also met criticism for saying US troops should remain in Iraq for many years. McCain, long a supporter of the "surge" of American troops and of leaving them here as long as it takes to achieve political ends in Iraq, will fight to keep substantial numbers there. But his position will also reflect the circumstances he would confront as president. McCain, who arrived in Iraq Sunday, has maintained that Americans will not object to a sizable number of forces in Iraq as long as the troops are not getting shot at.

"If we manage to stabilize the situation in Iraq and manage to get casualties close to zero, I don't think the idea of having troops there is terribly controversial," says Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to McCain. President Bill Clinton promised to get troops out of Bosnia, yet many are still there a decade later, he says.

"And I think that's fine," Mr. Boot says. "It's very hard for people to see Iraq in that context right now."

Some of the conditions in Iraq that first drove the debate over withdrawal have changed. Last year's surge of about 30,000 US troops improved security there. But the political reconciliation that better security was supposed to allow has not been realized in full. Further political reconciliation in Iraq is germane because it is driving the candidates' positions on the US mission there – and success or failure come January 2009 will determine the approach of the next president. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, maintains that Iraqi reconciliation, thought disappointingly slow, is still possible.

More progress on political reconciliation, or more violence on the ground, would push either of the Democrats to speed up troop withdrawal, and either scenario would be likely to force McCain to be more specific about his withdrawal plan.

The Afghanistan war, too, could shape a future president's tack on Iraq. If operations there continue to deteriorate, that will put more pressure on a president to reconsider his or her resources in Iraq.

About 158,000 troops are currently in Iraq, including 19 combat brigades, and current plans call for about 140,000 to be there by July – a reduction of five combat brigades since the surge was implemented. One brigade has returned home, and last week military officials announced that the second combat brigade, the 82nd Airborne Division, has almost completed its redeployment after a 15-month tour. Three more will redeploy by July, and Bush administration officials have hinted that another, smaller phase of withdrawals may occur by year's end.

But all candidates will be constrained by the speed at which the Pentagon can oversee a withdrawal of troops beyond that. Each will be responsible for making the right decision at the time, despite their election-season stances on Iraq.

Analysts like Fred Kagan, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, say that in the end the next president, whoever he or she is, will do the right thing.

"No one would be so stupid to come into office, see what the situation is, and then do the wrong thing," he says.

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