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Will Democrats offer voters clear Iraq choice?

Will Americans have a clear choice between two different Iraq policies — one Republican and the other Democratic — when they vote next November?
On Iraq, Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., said, "We’ve got to figure how we can get out in way that we maintain some dignity and honesty."Mark Humphrey / AP

WASHINGTON - Will Americans have a clear choice between two different Iraq policies — one Republican and the other Democratic — when they head to the polls next November?

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi cast some doubt on that notion Wednesday. And that's partly because President Bush, she predicted, will come around to a Democratic view.

Before Thanksgiving, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. a long-time proponent of robust military spending and a longtime ally of Pelosi, test-marketed the idea of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq.

“I think that after what Mr. Murtha did, it won’t be long before the president will be talking about redeployment and bringing troops home, because that’s the only thing that is going to make us safer, make our military stronger and bring more stability to the region,” Pelosi said.

“This isn’t about politics, this is about how we protect the American people,” she said when asked whether voters would have a clear choice between the two parties on Iraq.

The 201 House Democrats whom Pelosi leads held a caucus Wednesday morning to debate what their Iraq policy ought to be. Murtha presented his case for withdrawal.

Murtha: 'We can't win a military victory'
“When I say we can’t win a military victory, it is because the Iraqis have turned against us,” Murtha told reporters.

Murtha echoed Pelosi's prediction. “There’s no question they (the Bush administration) are going to withdraw; I predict that a big proportion of the troops will be out by next year,” he told reporters.

The Pennsylvania Democrat said Okinawa and Kuwait would be two places he’d move the U.S. troops and, he added, “If there is a terrorist activity (within Iraq) that affects our allies or affects United States national security, we could then go back in (to Iraq)…. If intelligence told us they were training to attack the United States or our allies, that’s the only reason I’d send them back.”

Murtha said that after a U.S. withdrawal, “the Iraqis would be glad to tell us” if there were terrorist cells or camps operating inside their country.

If the United States withdrew its troops, al Qaida and other terrorists will not take control of Iraq, he argued. “No way… It will be the end of the terrorist activity.”

Emerging from the Iraq meeting, several members described a Democratic caucus still in the throes of indecision.

Consequences of withdrawal
One question troubling some Democrats, according to Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. (D-Tenn.): “If you move troops out too quickly do you squander the gains that we’ve made? Do you suggest that the lives lost and the money spent — more importantly, the lives lost — were in vain?”

Ford said there was no need for Democrats to rush to a consensus Iraq position. “As much as I’d love to have coherent strategy, today at 10 a.m., I’d much rather have a plan that can win, if it takes a month or two months to come up with one,” he said.

For Democrats, who need 15 seats to regain control of the House, presenting a clear “bring the troops home” policy carries risks.

The risks are most pronounced in a dozen or so districts, mostly in the South and in rural areas, where conservative-to-moderate Democrats are running. Exhibit A: Rep. Jim Marshall, the Democrat who represents Georgia’s Third Congressional District, serves on the Armed Services Committee and has made six trips to Iraq.

Marshall, who dropped out of Princeton University in 1968 to enlist as an Army Ranger and go fight in Vietnam, told Wednesday that many people in his district have misgivings about the Iraq operation. But “there are many who would be utterly dismayed if we withdrew precipitously… A large percentage in my district would be of the view that setting a timetable for withdrawing or specific dates for withdrawing is not in the interest of getting to the best possible end state in Iraq.”

Marshall said “the challenge is to create a security system that works without religious or tribal or family passion – and that takes time.”

Democrats see troops in Iraq for years
“We probably want to be intertwined with their military — assuming we’re invited to do so —giving logistical, intelligence and conventional support for years in the future,” Marshall said.

Will the American people have the patience to sustain this? “I certainly hope so,” he said. “We did it for Germany, we did it for Japan, we’ve done it for Korea; we’ve been in the Philippines for the longest time.”

Due to redistricting controlled by Georgia Republicans, Marshall’s district has shifted from a 52 percent Republican district, as measured by performance in presidential races, to one closer to 58 percent Republican. He will face a well-funded opponent next year, former Rep. Mac Collins.

Ford is another Southern Democrat with a lot at stake in his party’s Iraq debate. He is giving up his House seat next year to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Harold Ford said, “We’ve got to figure how we can get out in a way that we maintain some dignity and honesty.”

So what changes will Americans see if Ford is elected to the Senate and there’s a Democratic House? “The notion of staying the course — we’ll actually define what that means. I think there will be a more concerted effort to involve the international community (in Iraq). I think there’ll be a more concerted effort to provide our military commanders with the resources they need to train the Iraqi military and forces. I think there’ll be a greater movement to involve the United Nations and the Arab League and other nations who have a stake in the outcome of our efforts.”

Asked for his definition of “victory” in Iraq, Ford said, “The Iraqis being able to govern themselves with a military and a police force that can defend the government’s stances and policies.”

Cut off funding?
In the end, whether on Iraq or any other policy question, the most important power Congress has is its control of the budgetary strings.

“I’d never support a resolution that undercuts the troops when they are out in the field in fighting a war,” Murtha said when asked about making further funding contingent on the kind of redeployment of troops that he has proposed. “I’m not at a point where I’d support something like that.”

Asked whether the cutoff of funding for the Iraq operation wasn’t the only leverage Congress had to change the policy, Murtha said, “I hope in the end it won’t be. It may be in the end. But at this stage I don’t think we need to go to that extreme yet.”