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Lindsay: Iraq Crucial for 2008 Candidates

Interviewee: James A. Lindsay, Director, Robert S. Strauss Center, University of Texas
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 22, 2007

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James M. Lindsay, an expert on American foreign policy, says Democratic and Republican candidates for the 2008 presidential race will be facing the same question: how to deal with the inevitable drawdown of American troops in Iraq. He says the Democrats, in particular, will have a tough time in the actual elections. “The problem that Democratic candidates are going to face,” Lindsay says, “is trying to craft a message that resonates with the Democratic rank and file, but that doesn’t create an image that’s going to hurt them when they move to a general election.”

There are many presidential hopefuls in both parties right now. Is there any uniting theme that strikes you about what the candidates are saying about Iraq?

There are two themes, one for each party. On the Republican side of the ledger the theme is support for the president and a robust endorsement of the global war on terror. On the Democratic side you have strong opposition to the administration’s policy in Iraq and clearly stated calls for finding a new policy, which range from slow to rapid withdrawal from Iraq.

If you believe the presidential popularity polls right now, which show the president’s popularity as extremely low, the Democrats would have a shoo-in in 2008, right?

It’s much too early to believe the polls, because most of the public hasn’t really begun the comparison of different candidates and how they approach the issues. What is important to keep in mind is that for the Republican candidates trying to win the nomination, they have to focus their message on what appeals to the Republican core. The Bush administration is still held in fairly high esteem by core Republican supporters. That reality is going to color how Republican presidential candidates frame their issues in the area of foreign policy. Likewise, for Democrats trying to win primaries and trying to win the nomination, they clearly have to portray their message in a way that’s going to resonate with the Democratic rank and file, which is very hostile to the president. Indeed, one of the things we’ve seen over the last several months is that the more centrist candidates like Senator [Hillary] Clinton (D-NY) and Senator [Joseph] Biden (D-DE) are being slowly pulled more and more to the left.

Is that because of so much money coming from the left or the political pressure?

It’s less money than it is the intensity of opposition to the administration. Democratic rank-and-file voters are deeply opposed to this administration. They’re deeply opposed to the war in Iraq. They want to get out. That sort of political reality, coupled with the fact that Iraq is not getting better, and is maybe getting worse, tends to pull a Democratic candidate more to the left. The problem that Democratic candidates are going to face is trying to craft a message that resonates with the Democratic rank and file, but that doesn’t create an image that’s going to hurt them when they move to a general election, where the trick becomes trying to appeal to the broader public.

The president has said on more than one occasion that it will be up to the next president to pull the troops out of Iraq. Going back in history, when Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for election as a Republican in 1952, he said he would end the Korean War. And he more or less did it by working out the cease-fire with the North Koreans that is still in place. How do you think the Democrats would end this war?

The anecdote you tell highlights the sharp differences between the Democrats in 2009 versus the Republicans in 1953. Dwight D. Eisenhower had two things going for him: Many Democrats also wanted to get out of the war in Korea, and he was a five-star general in World War II and he had tremendous credibility on these issues. He could beat back claims that he was appeasing, in that case, the Communist threat or that he was weakening America. He was in a very strong political position. The Democrats going into 2009 have a problem on that score. They do not have a reputation as being the tough party, or being strong on national security. One of the great risks for the Democrats—which is understood by Democratic candidates—is that they are very likely to inherit a mess in Iraq, that it’s going to be very difficult to extricate U.S. troops, that there are risks of a broader, regional conflagration. At the end of the day, they could end up being blamed for mismanaging the exit from Iraq, because clearly, if it turns out the Democrats win in 2009, they’re likely to be criticized by hard-line conservatives for not being tough enough. It will go through a whole series of debates about whether Iraq could have been won if we had stuck it out and not gone wobbly at the last moment. In that sense, we’re likely to see a reprise of the kinds of debates we had after the Vietnam War.

President Lyndon Johnson pushed for diplomacy to end the war in 1968. A peace agreement was not reached until 1973, after Richard Nixon had been reelected, but the war didn’t really end until 1975 when Gerald Ford had replaced Nixon and the Communists overran the South.

By 1973, it was clear the public wanted to get out. It was tired of Vietnam, and there was not a public consensus that the war was winnable. What’s interesting is that the debate in the years to follow was not that the United States shouldn’t go into Third World countries and become involved in civil war. The dominant message that lasted was rather that Democrats failed to support the troops. Democrats weren’t strong enough. That was a theme Ronald Reagan played on with great political success in the 1980 campaign. So how the Iraq war gets interpreted and the political lessons that are taken from that are going to depend upon the debates we get to have. Many Democratic strategists are worried about this possibility, which is why they’re trying to train as much fire on what they argue is the ineptitude of the Bush administration.

Let’s say a Republican wins, someone like [Senator John] McCain (R-AZ) or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Are they likely to stick it out in Iraq?

Whoever takes office in January 2009 is very likely to substantially reduce the American military presence in Iraq. We may not get entirely out, but there’s likely to be a substantial troop drawdown. But then, what happens next? What does Iran do, what do the Kurds do? Is the government in Iraq able to maintain a modicum of stability? There are a lot of unknowns out there that greatly color how this all plays out. One of the questions on the table right now is to what extent either Republicans or Democrats are developing a strategy for what happens next in Iraq.

If you assume that wherever we are headed over the next eighteen months is to a significant drawdown in U.S. troop strength in Iraq, what do we do, and what are we planning to do—militarily, diplomatically, economically—to make sure the mistakes we’ve already made in Iraq are contained? Geopolitical stability in the region, access to oil, human rights—it is a very, very difficult set of issues that are going to dumped on the lap of the next administration. They’re getting particularly difficult because they’re not the only issues that are going to be in the lap of the next administration. One of the things Iraq has done is crowd out a lot of other foreign policy issues. Presidents do not have the luxury over the long term of focusing on one issue and ignoring the others. So whoever takes the oath of office in January 2009 is going to have a very full plate of issues.

What are the other issues you’d highlight?

There’s a macro issue of how to restore trust in American leadership. It is clear that the Bush administration is going to leave, at least in the short term, a negative legacy. The United States is overextended militarily. It has irritated many of its allies and friends. Many countries with policies that are identified as pro-American are deeply unpopular. And so the challenge to the next president, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, is to change that conversation. But beyond that, and a way to achieve that macro challenge, is going to require that the next president take on a number of issues.

One clearly is going to have to be the Middle East peace process, to find some way to reenergize it. It is a very daunting challenge because it’s not a conflict that’s ripe for resolution, but it’s going to be important for the administration to engage in it. We’re going to have to address the issue of how one deals with the jihadist threat in ways that are consistent with our values and the principles that we espouse. And it’s likely we’re going to see the disappearance of the prison facility at the Guantanamo Bay naval base. We should try to close the gap between what America says it’s about and what America does. Other issues are going to be issues of nonproliferation, not only with Iran but North Korea. You’re going to have questions about climate change, which is likely to pick up as an issue which has a tremendous domestic economic impact. There are going to be major issues dealing with energy and energy security. Whoever comes to office in January 2009 is going to have to roll up his or her sleeves.

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