Democrats Starting to Form an Iraq Strategy

The newly empowered Democrats aren't unified in their approach to the conflict in Iraq. Some want an immediate pullout, others do not. As they assume control of the House and Senate, the Democrats will need to come to a consensus about Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now when it comes to the war in Iraq, the increasing power of Democrats in Washington means increasing responsibility.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Leon Panetta is a former member of Congress, a former White House chief of staff, and a current member of the Iraq Study Group. He's also a Democrat, and he's struck by how much the midterm elections changed the role of Iraq from a political weapon the Democrats could use in the campaign to a burden they now share with the president.

Mr. LEON PANETTA (Iraq Study Group): There's no question that this has been a divisive issue. It obviously helped the Democrats because the American people really were very concerned about what was happening with that war. But when you set aside all of the rhetoric and the attacks from one side or the other, the bottom line is that now both the president and the Democrats, as a majority party, face the same reality that is Iraq.

LIASSON: And that means, Panetta says, if Democrats force a change of course in Iraq, they're responsible for what happens afterwards.

Mr. PANETTA: The Democrats certainly don't want to be responsible for simply getting out of Iraq and leaving a disaster in the Middle East. I think they realize that if you just suddenly picked up all of our troops and left Iraq, there is no question that you would have a full-scale civil war explode. Right now, the only thing that's preventing that, very frankly, are the American troops.

LIASSON: Michael O'Hanlon is a Democrat and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He worries that the Democrats' approach to Iraq is too narrow.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): As the whole debate becomes about troop withdrawal, it's harder to have the debate about how we improve our policy. For Democrats, of course, this makes it seem as if getting their boys and girls home is more important than winning.

LIASSON: Some Democrats, like John Kerry, John Murtha and Howard Dean, have already decided that winning in Iraq is impossible and it's time to simply cut our losses. They propose pulling out all troops by a certain date. Others, like Carl Levin, are willing to use the threat of a drawdown to pressure Iraqi leaders, but they are not willing to commit to a deadline. O'Hanlon puts himself in the second camp. He believes it's still possible to, quote, "win in Iraq." But winning means something very different now.

Mr. O'HANLON: Democracy stuff, the higher aspirations for Iraq to become the new example towards which other Middle Eastern countries are drawn, I think those goals can be largely dismissed, and most Americans have. And we don't need to achieve those goals to have some kind of a strategically acceptable outcome. But we do need to avoid a million people killed in genocide. We need to avoid al-Qaida taking a major place in that country's future. If we can get to that basic point, I think we're okay.

LIASSON: But getting to that new scale-down definition of victory will be difficult, maybe impossible. And now that the election is over, O'Hanlon believes both the president and the Democratic Congress have a lot at risk.

Mr. O'HANLON: Both parties have their national security credentials at the moment in jeopardy because the Republicans have been prosecuting a losing war, largely due to their own mistakes. And the Democrats have been arguing just for cutbacks without saying how that would solve any regional problems. So I hope that the kind of posturing we've seen from both sides in the last few months -and years, for that matter - will soon end, for the country's good.

LIASSON: Both sides are eager for a way out of Iraq by the 2008 elections, if not sooner. And everyone is waiting for the Iraq Study Group to come up with a face-saving way for Congress and the White House to come together.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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