Most Democrats — in fact, most Americans — believe that the Iraq war has been a huge mistake for this country. Accordingly, it's no real surprise that Democrats will nominate a presidential candidate who sees Iraq as they see it: anguished by the loss of life, deeply upset by the damage done to America's reputation, and angered by the unilateralism and poor war planning of the Bush administration.
These viewpoints are sincere, legitimate and defensible. But they sometimes fail to fold in the reality of how far Iraq has come in the past 12 months under the new surge-based strategy of Gen. David Petraeus. Most Democrats seem to belittle or even deny the progress, despite a 75% reduction in violence and the beginnings of Iraqi political compromise.
To be sure, it is understandably hard for Democrats and other administration critics to believe that a war fought so badly at first could take a turn for the better. We are not used to such things in the modern era. Arguably, one has to go back to the American Civil War to find a parallel, and even that is a poor analogy because President Lincoln's performance in that war was clearly far better than President Bush's has been in this one, to put it mildly. That said, if Democrats cannot get beyond their viewpoint, they could suffer badly in the fall as a result. Even more important, the nation could suffer as we waste an election campaign refighting the debates of 2002 and 2003 rather than looking to the future.
The Democratic position — embraced particularly by Sen. Barack Obama but also by Sen. Hillary Clinton — is that we need to make haste for the exits. Obama rigidly calls for pulling nearly all combat forces out of Iraq within about a year of Inauguration Day. Clinton's position leaves room for some flexibility, though her words on the campaign trail are generally similar to Obama's. But neither candidate's approach would be supported by most leaders — American or Iraqi — on the ground in Iraq. Only those who have concluded that the war is already lost tend to back such a position. And that latter viewpoint is far less common today than it was a year ago, or even months ago.
Those who say Iraq will be better off once we leave underestimate the typical duration of most nation-building efforts (a decade or more) as well as the fragility of Iraq's new institutions and the freshness of sectarian wounds that have only begun to heal. The odds are that if we leave soon, we will lose, and Iraq will descend into all-out civil war far worse than what occurred in 2006. This will in turn risk regional turmoil and the likelihood of some al-Qaeda strongholds being re-established in key Iraqi cities.
Democrats and other critics of the Bush administration can still play a crucial role in the Iraq debate. A "loyal opposition" is needed — and tremendously valuable. For all the progress of the past year, Iraq is far from a stable place, and we cannot just put policy on autopilot.
Even so, Democrats and other war critics should not be arguing for an unconditional and rushed departure, as the congressional leadership and Obama are generally doing. Nor should supporters of the war be arguing for a largely open-ended commitment regardless of Iraqi performance, as the Bush administration and to some extent Sen. John McCain seem to favor. McCain, the GOP nominee, has been vindicated in his support of the surge, and his resolute commitment to success in Iraq is admirable. Yet it is better that Iraqis also hear a U.S. message of tough love, not only what has essentially become an unconditional promise of assistance.
Democrats can provide such a melded approach. If Iraqis do their part, we help; if not, we leave. Neither the Democratic leadership, nor the Bush administration nor McCain have advocated these conditions. The Democratic presidential candidate could ideally take such a stance. Though the approach wouldn't sit well with the party's base, it's a pragmatic way to embrace the progress occurring in Iraq while also planning for an endgame.
Thankfully, there has been some movement of late in Iraq's politics. Its leaders have passed a pensions law, a de-Baathification law to incorporate former Saddam loyalists into the army, a new budget for 2008, an amnesty law for many detained during the conflict, and a provincial powers act that should help clarify the roles of Iraq's 18 provinces and pave the way for elections this fall. These steps come on top of de facto oil revenue sharing last year, when the central government gave the provinces far more money to spend than ever before.
Yet myriad problems still exist. For example, the de-Baathification law, if badly implemented, could do more harm than good by purging Sunnis from the very security forces that we have worked so hard to include them within. And even the landmark provincial powers act has since been vetoed by Iraq's presidency council, leaving it in limbo.
As such, Iraqi leaders need to feel pressure to deliver. That is where a more conditional Democratic approach comes in. The United States stays only if Iraqis accelerate their own political efforts at reconciliation. This is admittedly a complex matter to evaluate accurately, but that is OK — Iraqis will get the message even if it is somewhat inexact and imprecise.
Democrats in Congress — including the two seeking the presidency and the leadership on Capitol Hill — should work for success in Iraq while reminding Iraqis that absent continued progress, the U.S. commitment could end, and soon. It is a message consistent with Democrats' past views on the conflict, yet cognizant of the considerable gains there in the past year.
This would be a noble, worthy approach for an opposition party in a time of war. And my guess is that beyond being the right thing to do, such a change in strategy would be politically appealing to American voters come November.