Democrats Find Iraq Alternative Is Elusive

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

Around the country, many grass-roots Democrats are clamoring for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. On Capitol Hill, Democratic politicians have grown newly aggressive in denouncing the Bush administration's war strategy and outlining other options.

But among the Democratic foreign-policy elite, dominated by people who previously served in the top ranks of government, there are stark differences -- and significant vagueness -- about a viable alternative.

In interviews, veteran policymakers offered no end of criticism about how President Bush maneuvered the United States into its present predicament, but only one had a clear vision of what he would do if the Iraq problem were handed over to a Democratic administration tomorrow. Several accept Bush's premise that a rapid withdrawal anytime soon would leave Iraq unstable and risk a strategic disaster in the broader Middle East.

"I'm not prepared to lay out a detailed policy or strategy," said former U.N. ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, who was widely considered the leading candidate to be secretary of state if Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) had won the presidency last year. "It's not something you can expect in a situation that is moving this fast and has the level of detail you're looking for."

The difficulty that the Democratic foreign-policy elite has in coming together around a crisp alternative to the Bush administration has consequences that echo beyond the warren of think tanks, universities and consulting shops where most of its members now bide their time. On complicated policy questions, candidates and elected officials usually turn to respected and experienced policy experts to fashion their own platforms.

Highlighting the lack of consensus, some Democrats advocate withdrawing apace to change the dynamics in Iraq and the Middle East -- and to avoid getting bogged down or discrediting the United States. Others argue that it is a mistake to even talk about a timed drawdown. In between, still others propose an initial cut, while keeping a sizable force in Iraq or the region to promote stability and avoid repeating the Afghanistan debacle of the 1990s that helped produce Taliban rule.

The biggest common denominator was the anguish of trying to define a Democratic alternative.

"I believe the assessment that if we pull out it will leave an unsettled situation that is bad for the neighborhood and bad for us. Therefore I'd be willing to stay longer if I believed what we're doing would lead to progress in six to 12 months," said former defense secretary William J. Perry. "But I have not seen that evidence, so I'm skeptical that it will."

Zbigniew Brzezinski is emerging as the most outspoken Democratic policymaker with an unambiguous alternative. He says it is time for Washington to "bite the bullet" and withdraw U.S. troops "rapidly," no later than the end of 2006. A more prolonged disengagement would jeopardize remaining U.S. troops.

"We have to face the fact that the war is not going well and is costing us too much, not only in blood and money but also in the U.S. position in the world, discrediting our legitimacy, credibility and morality even," said Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser.

Among several steps during and after a transition, Brzezinski favors keeping some U.S. forces in Kuwait.

Like Perry, Brzezinski said he would be willing to support current policy if there were more signs of success. But to win, the U.S. military would need to double or triple its size in Iraq, a step Washington will not take, he said.


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