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.
But three top strategists from the Clinton administration -- Holbrooke, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and former NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- argue vehemently against imposing a deadline, timetable or politically driven drawdown on Iraq.
"I don't believe in an arbitrary drawdown, whether it's Vietnam or Bosnia or Iraq," said Holbrooke, adding that a departure must be "based on realities on the ground."
Holbrooke said he shares the bleak assessment of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) about the military situation in Iraq. He sees a country enmeshed in civil war, with "no purely military strategy available."
He predicted that Sunni insurgents cannot win but said U.S. troops also cannot eliminate multiple insurgencies. But rather than a prescription, Holbrooke preferred to talk about goals -- reaching a point at which U.S. troops are not participants in a civil war, while still protecting U.S. interests in oil, regional stability, counterterrorism and Israel.
Albright has been hosting Democratic analysts at her Georgetown home to debate how to help Iraq stand on its own without raising the danger of a "chaotic mess," she said by telephone during a trip in the Middle East. Rather than a deadline, she favors outlining formal, public benchmarks to determine an orderly U.S. transfer of power to Iraq, and removing troops from the front lines to behind Iraqi troops as quickly as is feasible -- a position reflected in the recent bipartisan Senate resolution.
"The American military is both the problem and the solution. They are a magnet [for insurgents] but they're also helping with security," she said, adding that Washington needs to ease Middle East anxieties by declaring it wants no permanent bases in Iraq.
To improve the situation, Albright and Clark advocate more aggressive diplomacy, including the kind of regional contact group that was used to deal with crises after Yugoslavia's break-up and in Afghanistan after the Taliban's ouster. The Bush administration did foster a contact group and meetings among Iraq's six neighbors, but little came from the initial talks.
"Everybody wants to talk troops, but everyone knows we can't win this with troops alone," Clark said. The United States needs to make Iraq's neighbors, including Syria and Iran, "part of the solution, not part of the problem."
"The U.S. can't succeed by focusing on Iraq alone," Clark said. "As NATO commander, I brought a coalition together to defeat [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic. We did that through diplomacy. That's what forced him [to back down], not the bombing."
Other Democrats have staked out various middle-ground approaches. James Steinberg wants the United States to limit the mission to training and more focused counterterrorism, while ceding the counterinsurgency against Sunnis to Iraq's military.
After 2006, he says the United States should be down from the current 150,000 troops to between 25,000 and 35,000. "The precise number is less important than the principle," said Steinberg, the Clinton administration's deputy national security adviser and new dean of the University of Texas's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
The United States should not base combat forces in Iraq after 2006, because the U.S. military presence makes reconciliation more difficult, he said. Much of the insurgency is also related to the local shift in the balance of power rather than the U.S. presence, Steinberg said.
Among the rising generation of Democratic foreign-policy thinkers, Derek Chollet advocates a "reverse shock and awe," including the withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops over the next six months, to prove dramatically that the United States does not intend to stay long term.
The goal should also be prodding Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security without waiting until they are "as fully capable as we hope they will be," said Chollet, 35, who has not served in a policymaking post but was foreign policy adviser to Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
But even with his more aggressive approach to bringing troops home, Chollet does not favor timelines for complete withdrawal, and acknowledges "I don't know" when that will be.
The uncertainty among Democrats is reflected by the most prominent former policymaker of all -- Bill Clinton. In an interview on CNN last week, he used words that suggested strong disagreement with the administration: "I didn't agree with what was done when it was done, but we are where we are."
But he was vague on his proposed remedy. "We don't want to set a fixed timetable if that led to chaos" and a terrorist haven in the Middle East, he said. But he added, "It seems to me the best thing to do is to heed the wishes of all the leaders of Iraq . . . who say they want us to draw down our forces."