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Jewish World Review
April 2, 2008
/26 Adar II 5768
Election year politics and the cost of war
To appreciate the ongoing debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq this week, first you have to understand the different agendas of the players. And then try to move beyond those agendas.
Start with President George W. Bush. He is simply not going to admit that his policy in Iraq is a bust by beginning a major withdrawal of troops before he leaves office. I'm not suggesting a purely cynical motive here more likely the president believes that he can still leave a more stable situation to his successor if he maintains a larger troop presence. Or, put another way, he cannot bring himself to admit failure. Besides, at least in the short run, the surge of troops has brought a decrease in violence.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has a similar view to the president, albeit from a different time perspective. Bush and McCain believe that establishing an Iraq regime with some semblance of democracy would be good for the region and for U.S. interests there. Looking at the short-term gains of the surge, McCain is ready and willing to make a longer-term commitment. His position has been clear for years: If we do it right, we can still win.
Obviously his chances of winning the November election are tied to a belief that things will not fall apart before then. But it's clear he's talking about more than November. He needs to be pressed harder on just what he means.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama trying to appeal to Democratic primary voters who believe the war has been an abysmal failure, and unwilling to admit the surge has any portent for future stability are committed to bringing troops home as soon as possible. But "as soon as possible" is not an exact phase by any means. Obama stressed during Tuesday's congressional hearing with Gen. David Petraeus that he was not talking about a "precipitous" withdrawal. His agenda is to appear to be sober about protecting American interests without abandoning his opposition to the enterprise from the beginning.
Clinton, because she originally supported the war, has been in an even trickier spot, reversing her position without appearing to be politically craven her weakest point to many people. But still we need a better sense of what each of them propose.
This leaves me listening very closely to Petraeus, the commander on the ground in Iraq, who chose his words carefully in his testimony. He did not claim victory, but said the gains so far are "fragile and reversible." Petraeus is under a crossfire of pressure: from his commander in chief, who gave him the chance to implement his plan, the surge, to a horde of Army generals who say the nation's armed forces are spread too thin and that resources may have to be used elsewhere. If there was a message in Petraeus' testimony, it was that he won't commit to any withdrawal timetables because it's going to take more time to find a way out of the mess.
After five years and more than 4,000 U.S. deaths there, we all know better than to believe there's an easy way out of this situation. But the question I have is what the cost will be to the United States to sustain the effort there to the point that it is no longer "fragile or reversible." One of Bush's greatest mistakes in this whole episode was not leveling with the American people about this war's costs, nor understanding them himself. The next president, whoever it is, will need the support of the American people to sustain what will continue to be a painful policy. We need to move beyond the immediate political agendas and start asking these questions now: How much longer a commitment? At what cost? And what type of withdrawal of forces would least damage our long-term interests?
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James Klurfeld is a professor of journalism at Stony Brook University.
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