Democratic Party Proposals on Iraq

The war in Iraq is a divisive issue not only between Democrats and Republicans but also among Democrats themselves. Their ability to offer a viable alternate strategy on Iraq may decide whether they win control of Congress. 

September 15, 2006 5:12 pm (EST)

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Democrats largely disagree with the Bush administration’s handling of the war inIraqand its attempts to link Iraq with the wider war on terror. Yet they are divided on an alternate strategy, particularly one that does not paint them as soft on national security. Some favor an immediate redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq, while others favor a timeline for a phased pullout. Democrats have called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, citing a long list of botched moves following the ouster of Saddam. Regardless of whether these plans ever come to fruition, polls show Iraq—and the plan to eventually draw down U.S. forces—will weigh heavily on voters’ minds ahead of November’s midterm elections. 

What are some of the plans advanced by Democrats?

  • Redeployment of forces. This plan was originally proposed by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) but has been endorsed by a number of prominent Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). It calls for immediately redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq, while also establishing a quick reaction force in the region, most likely based in Kuwait, as well as an “over-the-horizon presence of Marines.” This plan reinforces the need to continue U.S. diplomatic efforts inIraq, but stresses that “the solution to Iraq’s security situation cannot be solved by the United States military.” “It is up to the Iraqis,” Murtha says. “We cannot do it for them.”
  • Timetable for troop withdrawal. This plan, proposed by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), enjoys the backing of twelve Democrats and one independent in the Senate. The plan calls for a timetable, established between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, to withdraw U.S. troops by July 1, 2007. Supporters of this plan recognize that an immediate U.S. pullout, given the current level of violence, could leave Iraq on the brink of civil war. The plan calls for a so-called “Iraq Summit,” a Dayton-like conference that includes leaders from Iraq’s neighbors, representatives from the Arab League, and officials from the permanent five UN Security Council members. Kerry has called for redeployment of forces—at least 5,000—from Iraq to Afghanistan to fight the growing insurgency along its border with Pakistan. “This administration has cut and run while the Taliban-led insurgency is retaking control over entire areas of the country,” he says.
  • Support the president. This plan is favored by Democrats like Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and to some extent by centrists like Hillary Clinton (D-NY). of the gravity of the war in Iraq and the larger terrorist threats faced by the United States, Lieberman urges a united front. "It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander-in-chief for three more critical years and that in matters of war we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril," he said in January 2006. Some Democrats up for reelection no doubt caution against following this course because of the war’s unpopularity among Americans and the fact that Lieberman lost Connecticut ’s Democratic primary to a political unknown who ran on an anti-war platform (Lieberman stayed in the race as an independent). Lieberman has not ruled out boosting troop levels. It is “likely that our presence will need to be significant in Iraq or nearby for years to come,” he wrote last November in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Decentralize Iraq. This option is supported by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE). Championed by CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb, this plan envisions decentralizing Iraq into “three strong regions with a limited but effective central government.” Gelb writes in a Foreign Affairs roundtable that uniting Iraq by decentralizing “is not likely to make most Iraqis happy, but it is a plan that gives each group most of what it considers essential: re-blessed autonomy for the Kurds, some degree of autonomy and money for the Sunnis, and for the Shiites, the historic freedom to rule themselves and enjoy their future riches.” A growing number of experts say some form of federalized Iraq will likely take shape but there are different variations of this option. Critics of Gelb’s plan say the division of oil revenues would be problematic, particularly given the resource-poor areas predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs. Others say anything resembling a de facto partition, because of ethnically mixed parts of Iraq’s various provinces, would only create more sectarian fighting, not less. “None will be satisfied with a ’Sunnistan-Kurdistan-Shiastan’ divide,” writes Judith S. Yaphe of the National Defense University. “This would almost certainly spawn civil war. Iraq’s Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiite communities are not monoliths; each has its secularists and Islamists, rich and poor, oligarchs and peasants.”

Why are Democrats calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation?

Murtha, Clinton, and other prominent Democrats have stepped up their calls for Rumsfeld to resign. Their reasons, among others, include Rumsfeld’s failures to stabilize Iraq and rout the Taliban in Afghanistan, the stresses he’s placed on the armed forces, and his sluggishness in properly equipping U.S. troops with armor. “No one is questioning his patriotism, his honorable service,” says Clinton. “We’re questioning his judgment and his leadership.” News reports suggest it is unlikely Bush will sack Rumsfeld, despite the fact that only 38 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing, according to a May Zogby poll.

What is the White House strategy on Iraq?

The U.S. strategy focuses on raising the professionalism of Iraqi security forces, building their capacity to independently patrol and secure their country, and reforming the security ministries to rid them of sectarian bias and abuses. Politically, U.S. officials are trying to bolster Iraqi efforts at developing a national unity government that can institute broad-based economic reforms. President Bush has repeatedly said U.S. troops will step down as Iraqi forces step up and any plans for large withdrawals will be determined by military leaders on the ground. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman defines the White House approach as an “adapt-to-win” strategy, referring to the U.S. decisions to ratchet up the level of troops before last December’s election, rotate more soldiers into hotspots like Baghdad, and involve more international actors like the European Union and the United Nations. Yaphe supports the president’s strategy, even though it may mean more U.S. casualties in the short term, because all the other options “focus on our needs, our politics, our standards of democracy, our casualties, our potential loss of regional influence and our dependence on oil,” she writes in the Los Angeles Times.  

How has the political calendar affected U.S. policy in Iraq?

A number of experts, including former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, who has advised Iraq’s Kurds, say President Bush lacks the political strength to unify Iraq. The war’s growing unpopularity played a key role in Connecticut’s race for Senate, in which Lieberman lost to anti-war challenger Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary. According to a recent Zogby poll, 56 percent of the U.S. population says the war in Iraq is not worth the loss of Americans’ lives. “Terrorism is an important issue to Americans,” says pollster John Zogby, “but when it comes to judging Bush’s presidency, their decision is based largely on Iraq.” Polls show that voters differentiate the war in Iraq from the war on terror and issues of national security. The election cycle has heated up the rhetoric surrounding the war. Democrats accuse Republicans of failing to grasp the grim realities in Iraq and adjust their strategy, while Republicans blast Democrats for being soft on terrorism.

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