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A year from now, cheap talk on Iraq won't cut it

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There is a telling observation by Ben Franklin about the relationship between American government and society. In 1787, the founders had finally cobbled together an agreement about the structure of this country, making concessions to both the rights of the states and to others who insisted on a strong central power to guarantee individual rights and to hold together the unwieldy mess. Anxious Americans had crowded outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia to await word of what kind of government had been structured for them.

Leaving the building after the agreement had been reached, Franklin was asked by a woman, “Well, doctor, what do we have: A republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic, madam,” he said, “if you can keep it.”

One wonders what Franklin and the other founders would think of the political spectacle that has evolved from the electoral process they envisioned. They didn’t anticipate the infantile hoopla surrounding primaries. Of course, they didn’t conceive of primaries or even modern general elections at all. And they would be startled, if not disgusted, by the role of money in politics.

But they were certainly familiar with the pandering to fear and prejudice, with the outright rubbish that passes for intelligent public discourse, with the half-truths and, all too often, the outright lies. All this would sound familiar 240 years later.

Back then, politicians called each other some pretty nasty names, but in other ways, they were more erudite, more civil, and much more serious about their positions on the issues. If there is anything lacking at this stage of the 2008 campaign, it’s specifically about the issues, and most of the discourse thus far has sounded like an argument in a schoolyard.

In the welter of noise, one topic that has escaped attention is the problem of Iraq.

Iraq won't solve itself
Iraq is an issue that won’t go away, and the consequences of the war will have a lasting effect on the region and on us. The candidates may be reluctant to think about Iraq now, but at some point, something will need to be done about it.

If there is one thing on which both Republicans and Democrats seem to agree, it’s that the effort in Iraq will not produce anything resembling a satisfactory conclusion for a long time. When it comes to deciding what to do, however, they part company.

The Democrats have each started with the assumption that the U.S. must leave. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., would withdraw one or two brigades per month until almost none remained, in about 16 months. He would leave limited forces to combat terrorism, and he would not train Iraqi units unless there is Iraqi political reconciliation. This plan is illogical and tactically dangerous. If Obama assumes that our forces in Iraq are not being effective, it’s difficult to see how fewer troops will be able to combat terrorism any better. In addition, a smaller force makes it more difficult to guarantee the safety of the few who remain. And he has his cause and effect confused: There may not be reconciliation now, but the lack of a trained Iraqi military will guarantee no reconciliation ever.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., wants to get out of Iraq, too, and she would begin a withdrawal in 60 days, but she’s not specific about the size of the first withdrawal. Plus, Clinton expects to have forces in Iraq for many years to come. So although her rhetoric is to get out, her plan is too generic to be executed and leaves her the luxury of making up her mind later.

The major Republican candidates agree that the tactical situation, not domestic politics, should dictate deployments and say there must not be a timetable for withdrawal. It’s not that they honestly believe that invading Iraq was a swell idea. It’s just that they subscribe to Colin Powell’s observation that we broke it and we now have to fix it.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., differs dramatically from Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney: He insists that we have too few, not too many, troops there. Many people with a thorough understanding of military affairs would agree. Anyone who has commanded troops in combat will testify that there is no such thing as too many resources, even in the conduct of a counterinsurgency. But while McCain may be on solid tactical and strategic ground, it will be hard, if not impossible, to find the political will to support his plan.

In the end, no candidate will get nominated or elected on the basis of Iraq. In modern times, likeability is the premier independent variable. You can’t become president if the electorate loves your plans, but hates you. But at some point, the candidate will become the president, and vague, half-baked, or impossible plans will no longer do.

Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.