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What Clinton (Almost) Doesn't Say

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, July 16, 2007

IOWA, July 10 -- Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton traveled to this crucial caucus state today to assure voters that she would keep U.S. troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future because "we cannot lose sight of our very real strategic national interests in this region."

You missed that news story? Me, too. It's not the message Clinton wanted to convey, and it's not the message that reporters took away from her speech.

But it would have been an accurate, if incomplete, rendition of her long address on Iraq policy. That she wanted to go on the record with such a view, but didn't want voters to really hear it, says much about the current Washington bind on Iraq policy.

Here's what she wanted voters to take away from the speech, judging by the top of the campaign's press release about it: "Today in Iowa, Hillary Clinton announced her plan to end the war in Iraq and urged President Bush to act immediately." Most of the address indeed focused on her plan to withdraw combat troops, which she said she would accompany with increased aid and diplomacy. She peppered the speech with criticism of Bush's war leadership and with phrases such as "as we are leaving Iraq."

But toward the end, Clinton noted that it would be "a great worry for our country" if Iraq "becomes a breeding ground for exporting terrorists, as it appears it already is." So she would "order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region." U.S. troops would also train and equip Iraqi forces "to keep order and promote stability in the country, but only to the extent we believe such training is actually working." And she might deploy other forces to protect the Kurdish region in the north, she said, "to protect the fragile but real democracy and relative peace and security that has developed there."

In other words, Clinton ascribed to what might be called the consensus, Baker-Hamilton view: Pull out of the most intense combat but remain militarily engaged by going after terrorists, training and advising Iraqi troops, and safeguarding at least some regions or borders. It's the position set forth in the proposal of Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Jack Reed and in the compromise proposal of Republican Sens. John Warner and Richard Lugar. Last week President Bush said it's "a position I'd like to see us in."

If everyone agrees, what's the problem? Bush and the Democrats have very different ideas of the conditions needed to move to Baker-Hamilton. (So, by the way, did Republican Jim Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton when they co-wrote the report.) Bush thinks U.S. troops can pull back only after they have established, with their new counterinsurgency strategy, sufficient peace to allow Iraqi factions to begin making political compromises.

Democrats say such compromises aren't likely anytime soon. As Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq's more sober-minded leaders, told the New York Times this month, "I am optimistic in the medium and long term . . . [but] it needs five or six or seven or 10 years." During that time, Democrats (and increasing numbers of Republicans) do not want U.S. troops in "the crossfire of sectarian violence," as Clinton said last week.

But, respond supporters of the surge, Baker-Hamilton can't work without security. Training the Iraqi army will be futile if all around is chaos; embedding as advisers will be even more dangerous than patrolling Baghdad now; and how successful could Clinton's "narrow and targeted operations" against terrorists be from a distance? NATO's inability to counter al-Qaeda across the Afghan border in Pakistan, and Israel's frustrations with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, are not encouraging.

Bush, in other words, views Baker-Hamilton as a prize to be won by means of successful combat. According to advisers, he sees himself playing for time, maneuvering so that his successor -- Hillary Clinton, maybe -- will have Baker-Hamilton as an option when he or she moves into the Oval Office in January 2009. Democrats, on the other hand, see it as the least bad response to irrevocable defeat.

There's another problem, too: Democratic primary voters do not want to hear of adjustments, redeployments, reductions. They want all troops out, now. That is why Clinton will devote one paragraph to the military defense "of our very real strategic national interests in this region" and more than 10 pages to troop withdrawal.

That suggests that by the time Bush is ready for or forced into compromise, compromise may no longer be possible in Congress. Which in turn means that, bleak as all the options appear now, the choices that a President Clinton would face in 18 months might look far worse.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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