What becomes obvious at first glance is that both campaigns chose to focus on Iraq in a different way. Clinton wanted to focus all blame on the Republicans, while looking presidential. This is a strategy aimed at the general election. “The mistakes in Iraq are not the responsibility of our men and women in uniform but of their Commander-in-Chief. From the decision to rush to war without allowing the weapons inspectors to finish their work or waiting for diplomacy to run its course. To the failure to send enough troops and provide proper equipment for them. To the denial of the existence of a rising insurgency and the failure to adjust the military strategy. To the continued support for a government unwilling to make the necessary political compromises. The command decisions were rooted in politics and ideology, heedless of sound strategy and common sense,” Clinton said.
Obama also focused on the Republicans, but lumped Clinton in with them on the issue of Iraq. This is a primary campaign strategy. “Senator Clinton says that she and Senator McCain have passed a “Commander in Chief test” – not because of the judgments they’ve made, but because of the years they’ve spent in Washington. She made a similar argument when she said her vote for war was based on her experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country – a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions. A gap between Washington experience, and the wisdom of Washington’s judgments. A gap between the rhetoric of those who tout their support for our troops, and the overburdened state of our military,” Obama said.
Not surprisingly, both candidates have similar plans for ending the war. Clinton said, “As president, one of my first official actions will be to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my Secretary of Defense and my National Security Council and direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to start bringing our troops home within the first 60 days of my taking office. A plan based on my consultation with the military to remove one to two brigades a month, a plan that reduces the risks of attack as they depart.” Obama said, “In order to end this war responsibly, I will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. We can responsibly remove 1 to 2 combat brigades each month. If we start with the number of brigades we have in Iraq today, we can remove all of them 16 months. After this redeployment, we will leave enough troops in Iraq to guard our embassy and diplomats, and a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.”
Both called for Iraq to take national reconciliation, more international involvement, and the Iraqi government to take responsibility for national security. Obama said, “We will help Iraq reach a meaningful accord on national reconciliation. We will engage with every country in the region – and the UN – to support the stability and territorial integrity of Iraq. And we will launch a major humanitarian initiative to support Iraq’s refugees and people. But Iraqis must take responsibility for their country. It is precisely this kind of approach – an approach that puts the onus on the Iraqis, and that relies on more than just military power – that is needed to stabilize Iraq.”
Clinton said, “Well, they may not have been in Iraq before the war, they are there now, and we cannot allow Iraq to become a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorists who seek to attack us and our friends and allies. So let me be clear – under my plan, withdrawing from Iraq will not mean retreating from fighting terrorism in Iraq. That’s why I will order small, elite strike forces to engage in targeted operations against al Qaeda in Iraq. This will protect Iraqi citizens, our allies, and our families right here at home…When I’m president, we will pursue a more integrated strategy. We’ll empower local leaders and use U.S. and international influence to press the Iraqis to reach political reconciliation, and I will call on the United Nations to strengthen its role in promoting this reconciliation.”
Both criticized Republican nominee John McCain and his advocacy of open ended commitment in Iraq. Clinton said, “Senator McCain and President Bush claim withdrawal is defeat. Well, let’s be clear, withdrawal is not defeat. Defeat is keeping troops in Iraq for 100 years. Defeat is straining our alliances and losing our standing in the world. Defeat is draining our resources and diverting attention from our key interests.” Obama said, “Now we know what we’ll hear from those like John McCain who support open-ended war. They will argue that leaving Iraq is surrender. That we are emboldening the enemy. These are the mistaken and misleading arguments we hear from those who have failed to demonstrate how the war in Iraq has made us safer.”
The choice for Democratic voters on the issue of Iraq really has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with personal preference. For Clinton supporters, the experience argument resonates deeply, while for Obama supporters, judgment is the criteria they use to separate the two candidates. Interestingly Clinton has all but forgotten her vote for the war, and she hopes primary voters do the same.
No matter who the Democratic nominee is, they will frame the voters’ choice in November as a decision on whether America should stay in or get out of Iraq. Obama is in a better position to make the argument that we should leave, because he doesn’t have a vote authorizing the use of force hanging over his head. This is a vote that some Democratic primary voters are willing to forget, but Republicans are certain to label Clinton as for the war before she was against it, as they did with John Kerry in 2004. However, in pure policy terms, there is no difference between Clinton and Obama, and this is one of the reasons why the race for the Democratic nomination is essentially a 50/50 split.