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White House hopefuls scramble on Iraq

Most of the White House contenders who spoke Wednesday want to go from being legislators hobbling the president to being president themselves in 2009.
U.S. Congressional Delegation Visits Iraq
Potential 2008 presidential opponents Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during a 2005 trip to Baghdad. Faleh Kheiber-pool / Pool via Getty Images file
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Presidential contenders in both parties jostled with each other all day Wednesday to stake out their own distinctive policies on Iraq.

In one way or another, most of the contenders had this message: We don’t want to hurt the troops in Iraq, but we do want to block the commander-in-chief from sending more troops.

Most of the Senate contenders who spoke Wednesday want to go from being legislators hobbling the president to being president themselves in 2009.

Five serious White House hopefuls, Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Barack Obama, D-Ill., Chris Dodd, D- Conn., Joe Biden, D-Del, and Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, all voiced their discontent Wednesday with the course of events in Iraq.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has already set forth his determination to support President Bush’s 21,500 troop surge to Iraq.

Clinton — as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination — got by far the most news media attention with a press briefing at the Capitol jammed by more than 100 reporters

Clinton sees vital interests in Iraq
“We do have vital national security interests in Iraq,” declared Clinton. “Al Anbar province is the staging ground for attacks by the Sunni insurgency and al Qaida in Iraq. Both are directed at us. We have vital national security interests with respect to what Iran is doing in crossing the border. We have a commitment to the future and the safety of the Kurdish people. There’s a lot that we still have as part of our ongoing obligations that are in Americans interests, as well as the interest of the people of Iraq.”

She also said, “I’m not going to support a specific deadline” for getting U.S. forces out of Iraq, but she does support phased withdrawal at some point in the future.

“I do not support cutting funding for American troops,” she said.

But she said she’d support cutting funding for Iraqi troops if the Baghdad government did not rid the Iraqi army of “sectarian and militia influence.”

Clinton said she was introducing a bill that would limit the U.S. troop level in Iraq to the number of troops that were there on New Year’s Day — a version of an idea also proposed Wednesday by Dodd.

Her bill would require Bush to seek congressional authorization for any additional troops

Yet she also expressed a sense of powerlessness that Congress could do anything soon to persuade Bush to change his policy.

'Little chance' to stop Bush in short run
“Troops are being deployed as we speak… There is very little chance in the short run that we are going to pass any legislation,” she acknowledged.

But she said it was important “lay down some markers” on what Congress expected of the Maliki government.

In a written statement Obama got his voice into the chorus by saying Congress had to figure out some way, which he hasn’t yet detailed, “to support our troops in the field while still preventing the President from multiplying his previous mistakes.”

He, like Clinton and Dodd, came out for capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, and he called for phased redeployment.

Biden's non-binding measure
Meanwhile, Biden partnered with Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Carl Levin, D- Mich. to offer a non-binding resolution stating congressional opposition to a troop increase.

The Biden measure would not affect funding for the war – but he seemed to drop hints here and there at his press briefing that was inclined to go further – perhaps to curb funding – if Bush didn’t see the light.

“We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to send two messages,” Biden said. The messages: don’t send more troops and seek a negotiated settlement in Iraq among the factions.

Hints of fund cutting
He called the non-binding resolution “a very important first step.”

“Is this a stepping stone to doing something about the funding?” a reporter asked Biden. “This stands on its own, period,” he replied, but then he quickly added that if Bush ignored the resolution “there’s going to be all kinds of proposals” — implying perhaps a funding cut-off.

Dodd, first out the box at a 9:15 briefing Wednesday morning, said he was offering a bill to prevent U.S. forces from being increased beyond current levels without the consent of Congress.

Dodd dismissed Biden’s idea of a “sense of the Senate” resolution as being relatively meaningless.

His bill would not curb or cut off funds for the Iraq operation; it would be a statement of policy — and almost certainly would be vetoed by Bush.

“I don’t want this debate to be about whether or not the troops that are there are going to be denied any of the resources they need to do their job,” Dodd said. “This merely sets a cap on the number of troops in Iraq as of Jan. 15.”

All of them voted for the war
All the presidential contenders who dealt with Iraq Wednesday are senators voted for the 2002 Congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq. The exception is Obama, who didn’t become a senator until 2005.  All have voted for continued funding of military operations there.

On the GOP side, Brownback, just back from a tour of Iraq and Ethiopia said it seemed like “the United States cares more about a peaceful Iraq than the Iraqis do. If that is the case, it is difficult to understand why more U.S. troops would make a difference.”

Brownback opposes Bush’s proposed surge and suggested that “we ought to be negotiating with the Democrats on ‘what will you support?’ Because we need to be in Iraq for some period of time to get this to stabilize, part around Baghdad.”

He added it would be a “catastrophic strategy” to “pull out of Iraq and leave behind a security vacuum or a safe haven for terrorists.”

What McCain has been offering voters on Iraq is a view of events that is unrelentingly grim.

McCain's pessimistic vision
“I want to emphasize again the catastrophic consequences of failure,” McCain said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute two weeks ago, after returning from a trip to Iraq.

“I believe the war is still winnable, but to prevail we’ll have to do everything right and the Iraqis will have to do their part.”

He warns again and again that if the United States fails to bring stability to Iraq, it will become a base for Islamic terrorists who will then come to the United States to attack civilians here.

What Jihadist leaders seek, he said, is the day when “radical Islamic extremism dominates the entire world. Do I believe that if we leave Iraq, that that’s the end of Western civilization as we know it? No, but I do believe that we will be sending young Americans into conflicts again somewhere else – it’s not the end; it would be the beginning of the end in some respects.”

Perhaps sensing that sounded too gloomy, he added, “We have faced other crises in American history and we will prevail in this one.”