The New York Times reports today that former Senator and current Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is calling for a 10-month troop withdrawal from Iraq, including those troops currently training Iraqi security forces. This raises two questions:
1. What took Edwards so long? His main argument for getting the troops out more quickly is similar to the ones we made when the Center for American Progress released its Strategic Reset report more than six months ago.
It makes little sense to spend billions trying to build a national army for a government that lacks the full support of Iraq’s leaders, and there are significant risks that the U.S. strategy is currently arming up different sides in Iraq’s internal conflicts, which may be in a temporary lull.
Moreover, an open-ended commitment fosters a culture of dependency among Iraq’s forces. The United States is expending its most precious national security assets — our young men and women in uniform — in “training” efforts that may essentially make Iraq’s forces less self-sufficient and less likely to take on the tasks only they can get done because they are more dependent on U.S. assistance. The political stalemate among Iraq’s leaders stands where it essentially was two years ago in the immediate aftermath of its last national elections in December 2005 — there has been no progress on national reconciliation. And as an Iraqi working with McClatchy Newspapers in Baghdad tells us today, the Iraqi parliament finally came back from its 16th vacation since it was formed in April 2006 — but is not likely to achieve much.
It is good that Edwards realized this fundamental principle — that mindlessly training Iraq’s security forces in the absence of any political reconciliation and progress is dangerous. But why did it take so long? We could have told you that six months ago. In fact, we did. Which leads to another question —
2. When will the other candidates move to this position? To their credit, the two other Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have both acknowledged the risks of training without political progress and reconciliation. Senator Obama gave a speech earlier this year that said he would continue training Iraqis IF political progress was made and the Iraqi forces did not act in a sectarian manner. Senator Clinton also has issued similar qualifications, though less clear, saying this past summer she would support training “only to the extent we believe such training is working.”
As Ilan Goldenberg at National Security Network noted, this shift to question training missions has occurred gradually over the past few months among the Democratic presidential frontrunners. Questioning the training is quite different from saying one would affirmatively bring it to an end because it was in the national security interests of the United States, which is what Edwards did today.
We all know that nearly all conservative candidates, except for Ron Paul, are out to lunch on Iraq, and that other progressive candidates are pushing for a sensible redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq. A strong majority of Americans — 57 percent — want U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2009. Will the rest of the candidates listen to the American public?