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Democrats Search for Positions on Iraq War

April 23, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The debate over Iraq policy in Washington continued today with Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Bush trading barbs over how to properly fund military operations in Iraq. The president reiterated his push for a clean funding bill without any strings attached.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: And I believe artificial timetables of withdrawal would be a mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While Democratic Leader Reid stood his ground, maintaining that troop withdrawal language is mandatory.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev., Senate Majority Leader: Our timetable is fair, and it’s reasonable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Reid has the support of the Democratic field of presidential candidates. All believe the problems facing Iraq require a political engagement rather than military force.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: You have to get the warring factions in Iraq, the religious groups — the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds — in a coalition government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Each candidate has also argued that Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria and Iran, must be engaged to help stabilize the region.

JOHN EDWARDS, Candidate for President: They’re going to have to reach a political reconciliation or there will be no peace in Iraq. And whatever number of American troops are there will not have changed that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But while most have called for a specific timetable for American troop withdrawal, it is here that the details vary. Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards would have all personnel out of Iraq by September 2008.

Sens. Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd both support a phased redeployment of forces, with most personnel out by the end of March 2008. That’s also the position of Senator Barack Obama, who said during a speech in Chicago today that a responsible end to the war would re-establish the United States’ position of leadership in the world.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-Ill.: We’ve seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on flawed ideology and a belief that tough talk can replace real strength and vision. Many around the world are disappointed with our actions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson propose withdrawing most U.S. forces by the end of this year.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, D-Del.: Look, people say, “Well, just get out.” Everybody wants to get out. Everybody wants out, no one faster then I want to get out. But, ladies and gentlemen, if that civil war metastasizes into a regional war, we’re going to be sending your grandchildren back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Only Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel are calling for all troops to be pulled out now.

Obama and Iraq

GWEN IFILL: More now on where the Democrats are positioned on the war from Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and editor-at-large of The New Republic. He's also author of the book "The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."

And also joining us is Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

E.J., to you first. Let's start with Barack Obama. He made a speech today on foreign policy. What struck you? We used a small clip from that, but what struck you about what he said, especially about Iraq?

E.J. DIONNE, Columnist, Washington Post: Well, you know, Barack Obama has a great advantage over everybody else in this field, or almost everybody else in this field, which is he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. He didn't have to vote on it in the Senate. He made a speech early on that laid out all the problems that he felt would come from going to war, and that speech looks fairly prophetic.

That gives him quite a lot of room with the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party, and I thought he used some of that room today, where, if you will, for general election sort of speech, where he laid out an internationalist, interventionist approach. He explicitly said he didn't want to take the military option off the table in Iran.

Yet he had lots of good anti-Bush language, good for the Democratic base. He called for prudence, wisdom, and also some humility in foreign policy.

On Iraq, he is where most of the party is. He laid out nothing particularly new for him. In fact, he reiterated his old position that we should be out -- combat troops, not all troops -- combat troops should be out in March of next year. That's a reasonably popular position on his part. He sort of broke no new ground on that and he didn't hurt himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Beinart, anything strike you about different, noteworthy about what Obama said today?

PETER BEINART, The New Republic: What's striking to me is that he didn't use the word "war on terror" and that the war on terror was not the prism through which he views American foreign policy.

George W. Bush, of course, has tried to set this up as our great generational change, our equivalent to the struggle of the Cold War. Barack Obama essentially rejected that, not to say that he thought that terrorism was unimportant, but he went back to Clinton's prism of foreign policy, which is essentially globalization, the idea that, in an interdependent world, bad things that happen in other countries can threaten us, in a much broader way, having to do with the environment, public health, poverty.

I think it was a return to where the Clinton administration was by the end of its term, and now you can see the kind of dynamics of a fundamental difference between where Democrats and Republicans are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, on Iraq, E.J., where does this put Obama? You said he's kind of where everybody is. How much running room is there all together among the Democrats?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, you know, I think the differences among the Democrats are much smaller than different Democrats have an interest in making them at a certain point. Yes, you have John Edwards, I think, with a very strong anti-war position, of course, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

But on the whole, Democrats are of the view that this war was a mistake either from the outset or, in many cases, given the way that it was waged, and that somehow the country has to stop the Iraq war from sucking all the energy out of American foreign policy.

Now, you have particular problems that different candidates have. Hillary Clinton has got the problem that she voted for the war. She doesn't want to apologize for that vote, and that kind of gets her into some rhetorical trouble, even though a case can be made she may know more about the Iraq situation than just about anybody except Joe Biden in the race. He, too, voted for the war and is now trying to use his criticism of Bush to put himself right with the Democratic opponents of the war who dominate the party.

Congress debating president

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter, looking at what all the Democratic candidates are saying, how much does any of that have a bearing on this current, right-now debate that's going on between the Democrats in Congress and the president over funding?

PETER BEINART: Not a lot. The Democratic presidential candidates, of course, are responding to Democratic voters, the Democratic base, and so are the Democrats in Congress. And people feel, rightly, that the war has been a catastrophe and that they went to vote in 2006 and created a mandate for some kind of withdrawal, and George W. Bush is standing in their way.

I think that the hidden debate amongst the Democratic candidates, or even within the Democratic campaigns each one themselves, is that their withdrawal plans come with something of an asterisk, which is they say, "We're going to withdraw troops, except of course we're always going to have enough there to fight al-Qaida, to stop al-Qaida from creating training camps."

Well, if you look into that further, it may be that it takes quite a large number of American troops actually just to be able to do that much more narrow mission, putting aside the question of trying to create a stable democracy in Iraq.

So one of the debates that's bubbling up is the question of whether the candidates' withdrawal plans are really true withdrawal plans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, E.J., I think what I keep coming back to when I hear these discussions is the polls show most Americans now believe the troops should come out of Iraq, one way or another, and yet the Democrats are not able to impose that position on the president.

E.J. DIONNE: Well, first of all, I agree with Peter's point. A lot of people, including Obama today, talked about withdrawing combat troops. That's not all the troops we have in Iraq. And I think there's a political problem and a practical problem.

The political problem is, the country on the whole is turned on the Republicans because they think the Republicans are too much of a war-like party, and the country has kind of decided that, significant majorities. On the other hand, they still want to know that, while Democrats would pull the country out of Iraq, they want them to be tough enough to fight whatever enemies we face, including terrorism.

As a practical matter in this fight, Democrats simply don't have the votes to force a withdrawal from Iraq. They don't have the votes to overcome the president's veto. And a lot of Democrats who are against the war are unwilling to vote for just a flat cut-off of money for the troops.

So what they're involved in is, you know, as John Kennedy put it, a long twilight struggle. They're really waiting for enough Republicans to turn on the war, to go to the president, perhaps in the fall, perhaps in the beginning of next year, and say, "Look, Mr. President, this doesn't work anymore. We who've been loyal to you up to this point can't stay there."

And I think that really is the way this policy is going to change. The Democrats just have to keep fighting these fights, even if they lose the particular battles as the thing goes along.

Republicans' influence

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Peter, the impatient anti-war piece of the Democratic base, they keep pointing to the election and saying, "Hey, that's what we were voting for." But the reality is, it's more complicated than that. It takes more time than that.

PETER BEINART: The reality is that George W. Bush doesn't have a vice president who's running for president himself. If he did, that person, who would be right at his ear, would have an enormous political incentive in starting this troop withdrawal so it was well underway by 2008. But he doesn't.

The question is, how much pressure...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey...

PETER BEINART: Exactly. So the question is, how impacted is he going to be by people like John Sununu, and Gordon Smith, other Republican senators who are vulnerable in 2008? I think the Democrats hope that, eventually, those people will start to prevail on him, because their political future is on the line.

What they want Bush to do, even if they can't get him to agree to set a timetable now, is to at least, as Harry Reid said in the speech he gave today, to define victory. They want to say, "OK, you tell us what has to happen by the end of the year for the surge to be working, because then we'll be able to say, 'A ha, you said this had to happen, these benchmarks had to be met. Now we can see that they've failed. Now you have no argument left.'" I think they would at least like to get to that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, E.J., in part, it could come down to the definition of what makes the surge successful?

E.J. DIONNE: Right, which is going to be very difficult, because what is successful, peace in Baghdad? Well, what if you have a reduction in violence in Baghdad? And that hasn't fully happened yet. What does it mean for the rest of the country? Does it mean any sort of political settlement?

I think the real argument here that's not spoken is between one side of the country, now a majority, that wants to get out of there at some point, whether it's March, or September of 2008, or now. And the other side, which really would like to stay until the thing stabilizes, a kind of open-ended commitment.

But if you support the president and his strategy, you can't say, "I'm for staying there forever," so nobody frames the debate that way. But I really think that's what the debate is about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The discussion goes on. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you both, E.J. Dionne, Peter Beinart, thank you.


E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.