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Jonathan Alter Headshot

The 'Pull and Strike' Democrats

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Iraq is President Bush's war, but the Democrats are quickly getting tagged with some blame for it. One of the reasons Congress is in such bad odor--less popular even than Bush in recent polls--is that Democrats look feckless on how to proceed in Iraq, and not just because they lack the votes to cut off funding. Are they neo-isolationists, determined to exit the region as soon as possible? Democrats like Pennsylvania freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy, who saw ground action as an Army captain, insist not. They want to get out of Iraq and get tough on Al Qaeda at the same time. But the idea isn't getting through.

Last week's attack on what remained of the Golden Mosque in Samarra--one of the most revered shrines of Iraq's Shiites--was apparently another sign that the organization known as Al Qaeda in Iraq remains a serious threat. The bombing (along with the violence in Gaza) was also a reminder that Democrats could still be in trouble on national security in 2008. Politically, the "war on terror" continues to be a useful GOP bumper sticker, whatever John Edwards's objections. Instead of bemoaning this, Democrats need their own bumper sticker--some way of framing their position that commits firmly to withdrawal from Iraq, but doesn't make them look like surrender monkeys. Without it, they have no coherent policy.

History can help. In 1993 and 1994, President Clinton developed a policy called "lift and strike" in the Balkans--lift the arms embargo against Bosnia and strike Serbian positions to prevent ethnic cleansing. The approach was inconsistently applied, which hindered its effectiveness. But at least it was a policy.

Now, Democrats should embrace what I like to call "pull and strike"--pull forces from the streets of Baghdad, but strike hard at Qaeda positions in the Sunni areas and in Afghanistan, mostly from air bases outside Iraq. In other words, saying no to the folly of intervening in a civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites isn't enough. Critics must also say yes--loudly--to calling in airstrikes on foreign fighters, who are increasingly being identified by friendly local sheiks determined to chase them out of their country.

The idea behind pull and strike isn't new, but its predecessor catchphrase--"strategic redeployment"--lacked a certain muscular quality and never caught on. Whatever it's called, the logic is clear. Pinpointing the whereabouts of Qaeda strongholds requires beefed-up intelligence, which has little to do with the large-scale presence of American ground forces. In fact, when we leave, and remove a major source of irritation, intelligence on the true terrorists will likely get better.

Representative Murphy remembers the day in 2004 when he knew the situation on the ground made no sense. He was leading a convoy up the road called Ambush Alley when a private first class turned to him and said, "Sir, what the hell are we doing here?" Murphy had no good answer.

After he found out that 14,000 weapons given to the Iraq military were missing, Murphy reflected back on his early training: "We learned to chant, 'I used to date a beauty queen. Now I date my M-16.' You could get court-martialed for losing your weapon, and here they'd lost 14,000!" Those weapons, of course, are now being used against the Americans who provided them. If we withdraw, they'll be aimed more often at Al Qaeda.

As much as Murphy, who voted last month to cut off funding, wants to withdraw U.S. troops from a civil war, he's a hard-liner on the real threat. When Bush, referring to Osama bin Laden, said on March 13, 2002, "I just don't spend that much time on him," Murphy was appalled. And when the CIA last July shut down the unit assigned to chase bin Laden, Murphy could not believe the story received so little attention. "The fact is, this guy is still at large," he says. "We've sent $5.6 billion to Pakistan and what do we have? There's no accountability in either Afghanistan or Iraq."

For Murphy, whose district is still strongly Republican, "pull and strike" is useful shorthand for conveying that critics of the war are both sensible and strong. This has proved an elusive message for Democrats, who somehow keep forgetting to bring up Al Qaeda and bin Laden when they talk to voters. (Had John Kerry done so earlier and more often, he would likely be president.)

To get a sense of how inept Democrats are at framing the debate, imagine if 9/11 had occurred under a Democratic president. You can bet that Republicans would go on the floor of Congress (and on cable TV) and say, "This is day 2,110 since 9/11 and the man who ordered the massacre is still at large." The next day, they would say it again, and again the day after that.

Whether Democrats call it pull and strike or something else, they've got to better communicate the two-pronged nature of their approach. This isn't about sloganeering. It's about clearly and memorably conveying the complex truth that leaving Iraq is not enough.

Originally published in the June 25th issue of Newsweek