Voters must know messy truth about exiting Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

ATLANTA -- Given deep-seated discontent with the war in Iraq, the new Democratic majority in Congress believes it has a political mandate for withdrawal of U.S. troops. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have succeeded in passing bills that borrow heavily from the Iraq Study Group, which proposed a significant force reduction over the next two years.

Most of the Democratic presidential candidates are also heeding the polls. The current favorites - former Sen. John Edwards and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois - all support proposals to withdraw most troops from combat by the end of 2008. The specifics of their plans differ; Mr. Edwards would hurry toward the exit, while Mrs. Clinton's plan has speed bumps. In interviews, Mrs. Clinton has acknowledged the need to keep enough troops in Iraq to prevent further Iranian incursions. But on the campaign trial, her mantra is simpler: Bring them home.

None of the Democrats wants to confront voters with the messy reality of the Middle East: Now that President Bush and his neoconservative chicken hawks have dragged us into Iraq, leaving won't be simple or pretty. There is no way to undo the damage we've done.

The Democrats are right to insist on a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces; the so-called surge calls for 160,000 troops remaining in Iraq for an unspecified length of time. That's cynical and callous, asking Americans to sacrifice their sons and daughters for no good reason.

But an abrupt exit would also be a bad idea. If a new president withdrew U.S. troops en masse in early 2009, the Iraqi conflict would not end with the occupation. It could - and probably would - spread beyond Iraq, inflaming the strife between Shiites, dominant in Iran and Iraq, and Sunnis, dominant in much of the rest of the region. At the very least, the United States needs to leave enough troops behind to keep Iran and others from making matters worse.

This is a messy and difficult conversation. After all, the bring-the-troops-home message is likely to win the most votes, especially in the Democratic primaries.

So forgive me for believing that some things are more important than winning elections. War is one of them.

Speaker Pelosi has sullied the debate among House Democrats by buying votes for the military spending bill that includes a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. To win over hawkish Democrats and fence-sitters, she and her colleagues inserted millions of dollars of pork-barrel spending, including money for those perennial victims, farmers.

Most Republicans, of course, are continuing their campaign of deception and duplicity. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another presidential candidate, denounced the Democrats' withdrawal date as a "recipe for defeat," insisting that "we are starting to turn things around in Iraq." Nonsense. Violence has dropped off a bit in Baghdad only to flare up in Tal Afar, where sectarian strife claimed dozens last week.

For his part, President Bush remains delusional. He insists that he'll keep U.S. forces in Iraq until they achieve "victory." What does that mean? Keeping significant numbers of U.S. troops on patrol will lead to a higher casualty count but not much else.

Still, a significant reduction of U.S. forces would leave a vacuum likely to be filled by civil war. More frightened and displaced Iraqis would try to leave the country, perhaps creating a refugee crisis. And unless thousands of U.S. troops would be left behind to keep out meddlers, the entire Middle East could erupt in conflict.

If the Democratic presidential hopefuls really want to distinguish themselves from the Bush presidency, they ought to do it by telling voters the truth about the difficulties ahead. We've been lied to enough. So tell your consultants that voters are grown up, knowledgeable, able to handle the truth. And then give it to us straight.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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