Democrats retreat on retreat
What this story omits is how irresponsible Democrats have been on Iraq policy for the last year and how that might effect their election chances. Ricks barely makes a glance at what the war will look like if when a Republican is elected in 2008 which is more likely than an Edwards administration. Giuliani and others have indicated that they want to stay on offense against the enemy. The fact is that our military situation in Iraq will be more likely to be successful under Republicans than Democrats and the Democrats have built a pretty sorry record to run against over the past few months.
In their debate Wednesday night in Hanover, N.H., none of the three top Democratic presidential candidates would promise to have the U.S. military out of Iraq by January 2013 -- more than five years from now.
"I think it would be irresponsible" to state that, said Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).
And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) put it simply when she outlined the dilemma that Democratic presidential aspirants face on Iraq. "It is very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," the party's front-runner said.
After President Bush's announcement this month of a limited troop drawdown and a continuation of the "surge" strategy through next summer, the key question for centrist Democrats in the presidential race is no longer whether U.S. forces will remain in Iraq but what size, mission and length a post-buildup, post-Bush force would take on. Even if the Democratic hopefuls decline to offer specifics, some of the people mentioned as possible defense secretaries under a Democratic White House offer a vision of a U.S. presence in Iraq that does not differ markedly from that of the Bush administration.
"There's a fairly narrow band of choice here, a relatively limited set of options," said David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who has advised Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. "I think a Democratic or Republican administration will be doing fairly similar things."
The first clue to determining how many U.S. troops will be in Iraq in 2009 -- and what they will be doing -- will come in the spring. As the buildup ends and U.S. forces begin to draw down, the United States will assess whether Iraqi forces are able to take over providing security. The U.S. strategy of "clear, hold and build" depends on Iraqi troops and police ultimately being able to "hold." But there has been little evidence so far of their ability to do so in areas that are being contested, analysts note, especially in and around Baghdad.
The second unknown is whether the U.S. standoff with Iran escalates, or other regional problems emerge that knock the U.S. effort in Iraq off track. "Wild cards that could alter the present trajectory include escalating tensions with Iran and/or Syria, as well as the physical or political meltdown of the Iraqi government in Baghdad," said Patrick Cronin, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in London.
Finally, the third factor is the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November 2008, with the vote likely to be shaped in part by how the United States stands in Iraq.
If the United States "reduces troop strength" and "withdraws from living with the population," worried retired Army Col. Howard Clark, a veteran policy planner, it would be quite possible to have a full-blown civil war emerge, with Sunnis fighting Shiites and the Kurds combating Turkish forces in the north. This could be followed by Iranian intervention on behalf of the Shiites and Saudi intervention to support the Sunnis. Some possible consequences, he noted, would be spiraling oil prices, destabilization of Pakistan and further problems in Afghanistan.