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Dems Must Frame Iraq Before General Election

02/27/2008 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One frustrating aspect of last night's Democratic debate was the vagueness in the candidate's answers on Iraq.  In debate after debate, both Clinton and Obama have failed to use this national stage to clearly frame their plans to end the U.S. occupation in the region. Instead, both have said that they will consult the Joint Chiefs of Staff, direct military leaders to begin withdrawal, and put pressure on the Iraqis.  By now this answer has been repeated so many times that any meaning it once had has dissipated.  Why not draw up the plan right now so that they can act on day one?  Why indeed.

Two factors have moved apace to turn this calculated ambiguity by Obama and Clinton into a potential nightmare in the general election.

The first factor is John McCain has ascended to the Republican throne.  With McCain, the Republicans now have a ludicrous, albeit crystal clear plan for Iraq: whatever it takes, as long as it takes.  Presumably, that means that a McCain presidency would bring an escalation of military forces in Iraq -- as many surges, American lives, and blank checks as it takes.  It's not a happy plan, but it is a clear one. 

The second factor are the rumored plans by the Bush administration and the Iraqis to negotiate a long term "partnership" for U.S. involvement in the region.   Nobody knows exactly what form this partnership might take, but it could well mean that prior to leaving office Bush would negotiate some kind of long-term engagement with Iraq that the next president would be forced to honor, albeit not necessarily a formal treaty.

Those two factors can be reduced down to two, election ready sound bites that sound something like this:

1. As long as it takes

2. Long term partnership

It is safe to say at this point that those two phrases are the Republican position on Iraq heading into the general election.  It is also safe to say that the Democrats are already allowing these positions to frame the debate.

In last night's debate, for example, Hillary Clinton critiqued John McCain's 'as long as it takes' proposal, but she did not offer any clear sense of what the alternative was:

I think we can take out one to two brigades a month.  I've also been a leader in trying to prevent President Bush from getting us committed to staying in Iraq regardless for as long as Senator McCain and others have said it might be, 50 to a hundred years. So, when you talk about what we need to do in Iraq, we have to make judgments about what is in the best interest of America.  And I believe this is in the best interest.

Notice how the clearest thing in that statement is the McCain proposal -- that Clinton says is bad (and most Americans agree, in principle that it is).  But why can we take out one to two brigades a month?  Why is one to two brigades per month in the best interests of the American people as opposed to, say, three to four? In fact, what are the best interest of the American people according to Hillary Clinton?  We get no answer other than:  When I am president, I will sit down and figure that out.  Vague.  Frustratingly vague.

A remark by Barack Obama's during the debate was equally as unsatisfying as that offered by Clinton, albeit in a different way. In response to Tim Russert asking Obama if he would pull  out of Iraq if the Iraqis asked him to, Obama said (emphasis mine):

Well, if the Iraqi government says that we should be there, then we cannot be there.  This is a sovereign government, as George Bush continually reminds us.  Now, I think that we can be in a partnership with Iraq to ensure the stability and the safety of the region, to ensure the safety of Iraqis and to meet our national security interests. But in order to do that, we have to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that we are not going to be there permanently, which is why I have said that as soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we will initiate a phased withdrawal, we will be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in.  We will give ample time for them to stand up, to negotiate the kinds of agreements that will arrive at the political accommodations that are needed.  We will provide them continued support.

Curiously, Barack Obama is already using the word  'partnership' to define his position Iraq--the word the Bush administration and the Republican Party are using to try to take control of the debate heading into the general election.  And that's not the only Republican language Obama used in that answer.  He also said -- as George Bush has said many times -- that he would give the Iraqi's time to "stand up" (as in, 'when they stand up, we'll stand down') and assured the Iraqis that America will provide them continued support.  Those parts of his position on Iraq are clear, but they also clearly come from the Republicans.  The part about 'calling in the Joint Chiefs of Staff' to 'initiate a phased withdrawal' is not so clear.  Why will Obama need to call in the Joint Chiefs?  Why not just start the withdrawal.  And why use the exceedingly bureaucratic phrase 'initiate a phased withdrawal' instead of just saying 'begin withdrawing'?  Nobody knows.  The answers remain vague.

Three Points To Clarify The Dem Position

Whoever gets the nomination for the Democrats, if they stick with these vague positions until the general election, they will cede the framing of Iraq to the party that has committed such a strategic blunder.

If Clinton is the nominee, she needs to demonstrate right now that her experience is solid enough for her to articulate--in clear and straightforward language--exactly what she will do in Iraq on day one of her presidency.

If Obama is the nominee, he needs to demonstrate right now that his judgment is good enough that he can state his Iraq plans in his own terms --not using the language Dick Cheney's propaganda--and that he can speak in straight forward clear terms that will rally the nation.

Towards this end, the following are three basic points that both Democrats can use to clarify their positions on Iraq.  These points are merely anchors for much more developed positions, but they can be very helpful to stake out a clear and distinct Democratic Party position right now, but with an eye towards the general election.

Point One: Talk of Ending the Occupation

The major difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party on Iraq is that Republicans believe we are fighting a war in Iraq while Democrats believe we are engaged in an occupation.  Both Obama and Clinton must make sure that they stay focused on this distinction and communicate at all times to the voters that their plans are to end the occupation,  while McCain's plans are to prolong the war.  The difference is not that McCain is calling for 50 to a 100 years of war and the Democrats want to end the war in a year.  The difference is that McCain is trapped in the Bush-Cheney talking points that the fiasco in Iraq is a war that we can win, while Democrats see Iraq for what it is:  an occupation gone terribly wrong as a result of the criminal mistakes made by the current administration. 

Point Two: Propose A Diplomatic Summit

Both Obama and Clinton have talked about using diplomacy more than Bush, but they have not made diplomacy a clear part of their proposals.  Proposing an actual event to be hosted by the United States can be an excellent way to make diplomacy something that American voters can visualize.  If Democrats talk about a summit, the voters know that if a Democrat is elected there will be an event in the United States formally initiating a new phase of diplomatic efforts.  If Bush should steal this idea and launch a summit prior to the 2008 election, all the better.  Democrats can take credit for it.  Either way, the American voter sees U.S. foreign policy being driven by the concrete proposals of the Democratic nominee for president.

Point Three: Frame Iraq With A Big Picture

Democrats need to make sure that they go beyond just talking about Iraq policies or plans, to frame the region and U.S. foreign policy with a big picture concept. The big picture the describes the Democrat's new vision for foreign policy does not need to be as poetic or memorable as 'Great Society' or 'New Deal' were for previous clusters of domestic programs,  but there needs to be something along those lines.  When voters listen to Democrats talk foreign policy, they need to be able to distinguish between McCain's continue use of the 'Bush Doctrine' (we all know that means) and the Democratic nominee's '[insert big picture phrase here].'  The big picture could be as easy as 'Smart Security' or it could be something else, but it needs to be something that speaks to the big idea that guide the smaller ones.

1. Occupation

2. Summit

3. Big Picture

If the Democrats use these three anchoring points right now--before the Republicans take control of the frame that defines the Iraq debate--then both Obama and Clinton will be well-positioned to control the discussion for the benefit of the country and the world.

If they continue to hide behind vague statements, then the general election will likely bring confusion and catching up as the clearly weakened Republican Party continues to beat the the Democrats on the defining issue of the century.

Democrats must frame the Iraq debate now--before the general election and before it is too late.

Cross posted from Frameshop