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A right-wing dove wonders: Would the Democrats be any better on Iraq?

By 12.18.03

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The conservative charge that Democratic candidates for president want to "cut and run" from Iraq is unjust, which is too bad. We'd have a genuine debate then. With the partial exceptions of the minor candidates (Kucinich, Moseley Braun and Sharpton), the Democratic presidential candidates rush to assure us that we must stay the course. When the Administration accelerated its timetable for turning over Iraqi affairs to Iraqis last month, liberal critics and Democratic leaders quickly flanked the Administration on its hawkish side, loudly worrying that the President intended to bug out without finishing the job. Their metamessage is that this election, to exhume a phrase, is about competence, not ideology; the chorus from the December 9 debate in New Hampshire: We'll fix Iraq better.

How? There is a single answer: Get foreigners to do it! At bottom the actual proposals of Kucinich and Lieberman are not that far apart, for all that one is a "peace candidate" and the other a hawk. Both want lots more UN troops and bureaucrats. Kucinich's "withdrawal" is really a swap of American soldiers for foreign ones. In a bold departure, Wesley Clark wants NATO to take over instead. (To be fair to Clark, he has made a strategic critique, accusing the Pentagon's civilian leadership of planning to invade several countries serially over the next few years. This statement of what everyone who has followed the news since Autumn 2001 knows to be perfectly true got him labeled "Ross Perot crazy" by some of the very same warbloggers who most want to invade several countries serially over the next few years.)

Dean tosses out a number of 100,000 foreign troops he'd procure. This is not substantially different from the Bush administration, which has been loudly hoping and quietly begging for aggregate troop commitments of this size since summer. And not getting them. The hot rumor this week is that James Baker's European trip is less about debt restructuring and more about getting military assistance in Iraq from recalcitrant NATO allies.

So why do the Dems think they'd do better? Because they can do multilateralism with a straight face and the Bush administration can't. And it's true enough that Bush's is an administration that will publicly rule France and Russia out of contention for Iraqi reconstruction contracts a day before asking them to forgive Iraqi debt. But liberal critics ignore the huge structural impediments to significant foreign troop commitments to Iraq.

TO WIT, IRAQ IS DANGEROUS, and likely to remain so in the wake of Saddam Hussein's capture, at least for a time. The resistance is clearly anti-foreign, not just anti-U.S. The pattern of attacks indicates that it wants to drive as much of "the international community" out as possible, isolating the U.S. in-country. The governments that wanted to participate in the war already did. The Democrats (and the administration) expect publics that disapproved the war in the first place to tolerate truck bombs and RPGs killing their soldiers now. Division-sized deployments are expensive, not worth any feasible amount of reconstruction swag. And most reconstruction critics think the real problem is too many dollars going to foreign firms and not enough to Iraqi ones.

The administration's own hopes were for division-sized commitments from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Turkey. All of these washed out for various reasons, despite the U.S. securing the UN resolution they requested, and, in every case but Bangladesh, that's probably for the best. Pakistani troops in Iraq seem like a particularly awful idea, given the enmeshment of the country's intelligence and military establishment with the Taliban and al Qaeda.

We'll get more international help is not a policy, it's a hope. It mirrors what passed for establishment Democratic policy during the debate, such as it was, over going to war in the first place. As Dick Gephardt put it Tuesday night:

I said to President Bush in the Oval Office a number of times early last year that he had to get the UN, he had to get NATO, he had to start the inspections, he had to weld together an alliance to do whatever needed to be done.

The kindest interpretation of the Democratic position prior to the war is the more devious one -- the Dems hoped to use the UN inspections process and the quest for "international support" to avoid war entirely. That's probably true of some. But many advanced the "international support" argument sincerely, which is worse, because it's pretty clear that the countries that balked at supporting the war did so because… they opposed the war. They weren't waiting to swoon before some Richard Holbrooke of the imagination. If you really wanted to invade Iraq, but only with consent from France, Germany and Russia, you wanted what you could not have and should have known you weren't going to get.

There are all kinds of reasons for the Democrats' half-hearted opposition before the war and merely tactical cavils now. Since their electoral reverses during the Cold War, Democratic politicians fear appearing weak on national security. Many liberals sincerely believe that the U.S. owes the Iraqi people, and that failing at the reconstruction would mean a failed state and a threat to U.S. security. Then too, whatever else war is (and Iraq's reconstruction is still a war), it's a massive government program. Democrats are hard put to look at such a thing and say, Nope. Can't be done.

So we got a sham debate on the question of war then, and we're having a sham debate on reconstruction now. Right-wing doves may be tempted to vote against George Bush, but in the absence of a real Democratic peace candidate, we'd do as well to cast a third party protest ballot as vote Democrat. Only four years ago a Democratic President started a war in defiance of Congress, and the current crop of Presidential candidates hold it up as a shining example of statecraft because it was "multilateral." Liberal doves will vote Democrat, but they'd have done that anyway.

The election may matter as little to hawks. The leading Democrats offer mainly differences in emphasis, which may be all the "soft hawks" require. Enthusiasts for further wars against Iran, Syria et al. may have a better chance of getting the full "Ledeen Plan" from a second Bush Administration. But the political leadership of the White House has been cool to the idea of new conquests lately. The "CBO Hammer," even in the absence of future wars, will force an Iraq draw down starting in March.

Contrariwise, whatever Democrat might occupy the White House next year will have agreed in principle with the "preemptive war" doctrine and committed to a sizable U.S. military presence in ancient Mesopotamia. And just as Republican politicians fear not only the "social security card" but any card from the same deck, so ambitious Democrats shun the "soft on defense" label. We live in a country where Hillary Clinton calls for more troops in Iraq and George W. Bush brags of signing the largest entitlement expansion since the sixties. Pfagh.

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