Iraq Dominates Testy Dem Debate

Iraq as an issue was back front and center in Iraq on Monday in the South Carolina presidential debate among the Democratic candidates.

Barack Obama complained that his record of opposing the Iraq War had been distorted by Bill Clinton, who had called the image of steadfast consistency on Obama’s part in that regard a ‘fairy tale.’

Clinton replied that Obama took down his anti-war speech from his web site and voted several times to fund the war once he was in the senate.

[I don’t believe either of these criticisms is fair. No Democrat voted actually to continue the war. They voted for the only budget they could get past the Republicans. Clinton is just desperate to remove Barack’s advantage with the left of the party, which is that he has all along been far more anti-war than she. If her point was that once he was in the senate, Obama was constrained by political reality just as she was, she should say that rather than suggesting that he wasn’t steadfastly anti-war. Moreover, there is a difference between being forced to vote a budget that contains things you don’t like and actively voting for things like war authorization and Kyl-Lieberman.]

All three candidates pledged to end the war if elected, though none seemed eager to just pull up stakes and get out immediately and risk all hell breaking loose. This is a good sign, since getting out of Iraq in such a way that it doesn’t send the Oil Gulf up in flames won’t be easy.

Their consensus was that the troop escalation or ‘surge’ hasn’t really worked since its goal was to create space for political compromise, and not much of that is in evidence.

The low point was when Clinton and Obama smeared each other with ‘Walmart’ and ‘slumlord,’ respectively.

I think Obama won the debate on points.

A transcript of Monday’s debate is here.

The Iraq-related bits are here:

‘OBAMA: George Bush has consistently skewed our tax code to the wealthy. He has squandered billions of dollars in a war that I believe should never have been authorized and should have never been waged. . .

OBAMA: And I think that part of what the people are looking for right now is somebody who’s going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we’ve seen in Washington.

(APPLAUSE)

That is something that I hear all across the country. So when Senator Clinton says — or President Clinton says that I wasn’t opposed to the war from the start or says it’s a fairytale that I opposed the war, that is simply not true.’

and this:

‘Clinton: ‘And I want to be just very explicit about this. We are not, neither my campaign nor anyone associated with it, are in any way saying you did not oppose the war in Iraq.

CLINTON: You did. You gave a great speech in 2002 opposing the war in Iraq. That was not what the point of our criticism was.

It was after having given that speech, by the next year the speech was off your Web site. By the next year, you were telling reporters that you agreed with President Bush in his conduct of the war. And by the next year, when you were in the Senate, you were voting to fund the war time after time after time.

BLITZER: All right.

CLINTON: So it was more about the distinction between words and action. And I think that is a fair assessment for voters to make. ‘

Then there is this:

‘ JOHNS: Senator Clinton, on the Iraq question, we’re here in South Carolina. It’s a big military state with a lot of military families. Last week, U.S. military commanders on the ground in Iraq said that Baghdad is now 75 percent secured. There’s also important signs of political progress, including de-Baathification, which was basically long awaited. That, of course, was a big benchmark.

Last week, you said the next president will, quote, “have a war to end in Iraq.” In light of the new military and political progress on the ground there in Iraq, are you looking to end this war or win it?

CLINTON: I’m looking to bring our troops home, starting within 60 days of my becoming president, and here’s why, Joe. I have the greatest admiration for the American military. I serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I’ve been to Iraq three times. I’ve met with the leaders of the various factions. But there is no military solution, and our young men and women should not remain as the referees of their conflict.

I believe what you’re seeing happen is twofold. Of course the surge, the so-called surge, was able to pacify certain parts of Iraq. If we put enough of our men and women and equipment in, we’re going to be able to have some tactical military success. But the whole purpose of the surge was to force the Iraqi government to move quickly towards the kind of resolution that only it can bring about.

I think what is motivating the Iraqi government is the debate in the political campaign here. They know they will no longer have a blank check from George Bush, that I will with draw troops from Iraq. And I believe that will put even more pressure on the Iraqis to finally make the decisions that they have to make.

It is not going to be easy. Withdrawing troops is dangerous. That’s why I’ve been working to make sure that we knew all of the various steps we would have to take, because it’s not just bringing our troops and equipment home. We have more than 100,000 civilians there, working for the embassy, working for businesses, working for charities.

We have a lot of Iraqis who sided with us, translators and drivers who put their lives on the line for American military forces. So this is complicated, but I’m committed to withdraw our troops and to put the Iraqi government on notice that their time is running out.

CLINTON: And they have to make these tough decisions.’

And then there was this outbreak of unity on ending the war and getting the troops out as carefully as possible:

‘ BLITZER: I’m going to let Senator Obama respond, too.

But, Senator Edwards, Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, he supported the surge from the beginning. I think all three of you opposed the surge from the beginning. He says now the surge is working, there’s military progress, the level of violence has gone down, and that the United States must not surrender in Iraq. It must win that war in Iraq.

Why do you believe Senator McCain is wrong?

EDWARDS: He’s wrong because George Bush himself said the entire reason for the surge was to create an environment for political progress. Everyone from the Iraq Study Group, to even Bush recognized — and if Bush recognizes it, man, it’s really got to be out there.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: Even President Bush recognizes that unless the Sunni and Shia reach some political reconciliation, there cannot be stability in Iraq. And the problem with this definition and evaluation of where the progress has been made is that there has been no meaningful political progress.

There has been a little bit, in fairness. A little bit, but very little. And I don’t think it changes anything.

The one thing I would say is — and I would actually like for both of them to have a chance to respond to is this — what I have said very clearly, all of us has said, we would end the war. And I don’t have any doubt that all of us are committed to that, I don’t doubt that. But how aggressively and how quickly is an important question.

And I have said in the first year that I am president, I will have all combat troops out of Iraq. All combat missions will end in Iraq, and there will be no permanent military bases in Iraq.

(APPLAUSE)

EDWARDS: I have not heard — now, admittedly, just to be fair, I don’t hear everything they say on the campaign trail, but I have not heard either of them say that definitively. So I would be interested in knowing whether they will commit to having all combat troops out and ending combat missions in the first year.

BLITZER: Senator Obama?

OBAMA: John, what I have said, and I’ve said repeatedly, is I want to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in, but I want to make sure that we get all our combat troops out as quickly as we can safely. Now, the estimates are maybe that’s two brigades per month. At that pace it would be some time in 2009 that we had our combat troops out, depending on whether Bush follows through on his commitment to draw down from the surge.

We don’t know that yet, but understand what’s at stake here. John is exactly right that the question is, how do we create a stable Iraqi government where our troops are not required to remain permanent bases in — and a permanent occupation in Iraq?

We are spending $9 billion to $10 billion every month. That’s money that could be going right here in South Carolina to lay broadband lines in rural communities, to put kids back to school.

And so when John McCain says we’ll be there for 50 or 60 or 100 years, it is not just the loss of life, which is obviously the most tragic aspect of it, it’s also the fact that financially it is unsustainable. We will have spent $2 trillion at least, it’s estimated, by the time this whole thing is over. That’s enough to have rebuilt every road, bridge, hospital, school in America, and still have money left over.

(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER: All right.

OBAMA: But just one last point I want to make.

We are seeing Al Qaida stronger now than at any time since 2001. That is a significant threat that has to be dealt with. Because we have been distracted, we have ended up seeing a more dangerous situation, and so we are not — this is not just a matter of who is right and who is wrong about having gone to war or the surge. It’s also, how do we deal with the future threats? And as long as we’re bogged down in Iraq, we are not going to be able to deal with those future threats.

BLITZER: Senator Clinton, do you want to respond to Senator Edwards asking you whether you’re ready to commit to all combat troops being out of Iraq within a year?

CLINTON: What I have said is that I will move as quickly as possible. I hope to have nearly all out within a year.

We don’t know what we’re going to inherent from President Bush, but there is a big problem looming on the horizon that we had better pay attention to, and that is President Bush is intent upon negotiating a long-term agreement with Iraq which would have permanent bases, permanent troop presence. And he claims he does not need to come to the United States Congress to get permission, he only needs to go to the Iraqi parliament.

That is his stated public position. He was recently in the region, and it is clear that he intends to push forward on this to try to bind the United States government and his successor to his failed policy.

I have been strongly opposed to that. We should not be planning permanent bases and long-term troop commitments.

CLINTON: Obviously, we’ve got to rein in…

(APPLAUSE)

… President Bush. And I’ve proposed legislation and I know that members of the Congressional Black Caucus are looking at this, as well. We need legislation in a hurry which says, “No, Mr. Bush, you are the president of the United States of America. You cannot bind our country without coming to the United States Congress.” This is a treaty…

(APPLAUSE)

… that would have to be presented and approved, and it will not be. ‘