Edwards Slams HRC on Iraq: Justifiable (Political) War or Desperate Act?

| Mon Nov. 19, 2007 1:09 PM EST

I don't fancy taking Hillary Clinton's side against John Edwards, especially when it concerns the Iraq war. But the former North Carolina senator is trying too darn hard to pick a fight with the junior senator from New York on Iraq. Yesterday, at a town hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, Edwards said that Clinton's unwillingness to announce a timetable for removing troops from Iraq is tantamount to "continuing the war."

That's not so. It's true that Edwards has been more specific than Clinton in calling for a troop withdrawal. He has vowed that he would, if elected president, immediately pull out 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops and fully withdraw US. forces from Iraq within ten months. (Barack Obama has said he would remove one to two brigades a month; there are about 20 combat brigades in Iraq.) Clinton's position regarding withdrawal, according to her website, is this:

Starting Phased Redeployment within Hillary's First Days in Office: The most important part of Hillary's plan [to end the Iraq war] is the first: to end our military engagement in Iraq's civil war and immediately start bringing our troops home. As president, one of Hillary's first official actions would be to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council. She would direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting with the first 60 days of her Administration. She would also direct the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to prepare a comprehensive plan to provide the highest quality health care and benefits to every service member -- including every member of the National Guard and Reserves -- and their families.

Clinton promises she will bring the war to a conclusion. Edwards and others may have good reason to doubt she is sincere or committed to this position, given her earlier support for the war, which continued after the invasion. After all, she did come late (later than Edwards) to the withdrawal position. Yet Edwards is attempting to transform their present differences--offering a timetable now for removing troops versus vowing to create quickly a viable withdrawal plan for removing troops--into a foundational battle. Edwards said in Reno,

She says that she will end the war, but she also says she will continue combat missions in Iraq and keep combat troops stationed in Iraq. From my perspective, that's not ending the war. That's continuing the war. In fact, it's continuing the occupation. So we have really different views about that.

Maintaining troops in Iraq for training purposes or for combating the remnants of the local al Qaeda franchise--wise or not--would not be continuing the occupation. In fact, Edwards has not said that he would pull out every single soldier.

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Moreover, the next president will not assume office until 14 months from now. It is, in a way, unrealistic for any candidate to say now precisely what he or she would do then. The ground reality might cause the next president to remove troops quicker or slower than what he or she promises at this point.

Edwards, a smart fellow, knows this. But he needs to make whatever hay he can before the Iowa caucuses. Last week, his campaign blasted Clinton for having laughed at the economic dislocation caused by Nafta. That was not quite what had happened. At the Las Vegas debate, Clinton was asked about the quasi-legendary 1993 televised debate on Nafta between Vice President Al Gore and billionaire Ross Perot. At the mention of the debate, she laughed and said all she could remember of that now were the charts. Certainly, Edwards can question CLinton's current position (Nafta may not have been an overwhelming success and a trade accord timeout may be warranted), given Clinton's involvement in the administration that birthed Nafta. But it's a bit silly to say she was cavalierly laughing at the harm caused by Nafta.

Edwards' problem (and Obama shares it) is that many Democratic voters take Clinton at her word: she wants to end the war, she's no longer a big Nafta backer. That's going to sound and seem reasonable to many Democratic primary voters. Most of these voters have been watching her do battle with GOPers for 15 years, and many view her as, more or less, a true-blue fighter for Democratic issues. Calling her Bush-lite or suggesting she'll do in Iraq what George W. Bush would do if he had a third term is a hard sell. Clinton has cleverly tailored her positions for this presidential run, and the cutting and stitching have been rather professional--almost seamless.

To deny her the nomination, Edwards (or Obama) will have to exploit real and significant differences that are clear to voters. And here's the tricky part: they have to do so without looking desperate.

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