On the surface, the presidential candidates’ rhetoric on Iraq seems to be a natural extension of the partisan dispute that has buffeted a war-funding bill in Congress this year. The four senator-candidates in the Democratic Party even voted for a recent measure aimed at cutting off funding for the war by next March, although it was doomed for failure (ConnPost). On the Republican side, frontrunners Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney used the start of their last debate to reinforce support for the military campaign in Iraq as essential to U.S. security.
But a closer look at the Iraq debate shows the prospect for fissures within both parties, as this new Backgrounder explains. For example, on the May 16 vote in the Senate to halt war funding, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) mixed signals about whether or not she would actually support cutting off funding highlighted the sensitivity of the issue for a prospective Democratic commander-in-chief: Get out or support the troops? (AP)
Equally noteworthy, a separate Senate vote that same day saw a majority of Republicans vote for the first time to restrict aid to the Iraqi government if they didn’t meet certain benchmarks. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), although irked by the funding impasse, said there is bipartisan agreement “that we must hold the Iraqi government accountable (The Hill blog) to a political process that allows for reconciliation.”
Close up, the GOP presidential candidates are not exactly embracing President Bush’s record. During the first two debates the name of another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, seemed to be mentioned far more frequently than the current office-holder. Bloomberg News’ commentator Albert R. Hunt says a number of Republicans are already distancing themselves from Bush’s record in the run-up to the 2008 congressional elections. News analyst Craig Crawford calls it fear of an apparently unswerving administration policy involving “unlimited resources for a war that has no foreseeable end” (CQ Politics.com).
But on the immediate funding bill, Bush has signaled his desire for compromise, and during a recent press conference repeatedly cited the need for benchmarks to be set for U.S. engagement in Iraq. Those “benchmarks” include approving an oil revenue-sharing law, holding provincial elections, and reversing de-Baathification laws, all of which are fraught with difficulties. With lawmakers from both parties seeking movement on these issues, the question comes back to timelines, which could become another sticking point in war-funding talks.
Accompanying the negotiations on the Hill is continued dire reporting from the war front. Over the past week, U.S. soldiers have been consumed with finding three comrades captured (LAT) after an attack by insurgents south of Baghdad. A new report from Britain’s Chatham House think tank says in much of the country (PDF) Iraq's current government is “largely irrelevant in terms of ordering social, economic, and political life.” CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot writes in the Wall Street Journal that U.S. and Iraqi forces have managed to sharply reduce sectarian killing since January but he says lawmakers should not be placing too heavy an emphasis on the military’s September status report on the surge. His politically unpalatable message: “If we’re going to be successful in Iraq, we’re going to have to make a long-term commitment.”