Early Centrism!

When a president gets into trouble in a war – like Truman in Korea or Johnson in Vietnam – the electorate, naturally enough, turns to the other party. Hilary has an interview in the NY Times that I think foreshadows the kind of position any Democratic candidate will have to take if they are to appeal to the center of the electorate. Here is the opening paragraph:

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton foresees a “remaining military as well as political mission” in Iraq, and says that if elected president, she would keep a reduced military force there to fight Al Qaeda, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly support the Iraqi military.

The overuse of the Vietnam quagmire meme to characterize the Iraqi war as unwinnable has a political cost. Calls to bring home the troops without some provision for stability in the Middle East is just plain irresponsible and leaves any candidate who does that wide open to the accusation of ‘cut and run’. It is not necessary to invoke the picture of the last helicopter taking off from the roof in Saigon – it arises spontaneously. Most Americans including people like myself who opposed the Vietnam war don’t think that was a good thing. So we are not going to vote for anyone who promises us a rerun. The ‘bring the troops home now’ position leaves the door wide open to a centrist Republican like McCain or Giuliani. Obama, to his credit, also said he would keep some troops in Iraq.

I find it interesting that the leading candidates are making this move to the center so early. Perhaps it is just a good time to remind Pelosi and the other anti war Democrats to back off. But I hope it shows a real and early emergence of a centrist foreign policy position from the Democratic party. I think that’s good for the debate and the country. Kerry never got there in 2004 and was beaten badly by an unpopular president.

In this Pajamas Media podcast, Screen writer Katy Wright disagreed with Glenn Reynolds that the exceptionally early start to the campaign was just a waste of time and money. Instead she argued that the electorate was genuinely interested in what would happen post Bush and wanted the issues thoroughly explored. While Glenn is probably correct about the waste, I think Katy may be right about the level of concern in the electorate. We are in a war and the way forward is not at all clear. So far, neither fighting nor appeasing in the 20th century way has worked.

The final two paragraphs of the Times interview make the core of Hilary’s position clear:

Asked if Americans would endure having troops in Iraq who do nothing to stop sectarian attacks there, she replied: “Look, I think the American people are done with Iraq. I think they are at a point where, whether they thought it was a good idea or not, they have seen misjudgment and blunder after blunder, and their attitude is, What is this getting us? What is this doing for us?”

“No one wants to sit by and see mass killing,” she added. “It’s going on every day! Thousands of people are dying every month in Iraq. Our presence there is not stopping it. And there is no potential opportunity I can imagine where it could. This is an Iraqi problem; we cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. If we had a different attitude going in there, if we had stopped the looting immediately, if we had asserted our authority — you can go down the lines, if, if, if —”

Hilary has it right that it is an unpopular war and she points to a critical reality in the situation – the ongoing inability to stop the sectarian violence – and takes a clear position on the matter. I agree – we can only moderate the Shiites and Kurds dealing with the Sunnis. Indirectly her position acknowledges what I believe to be the biggest surprise of the Iraq war. Specifically that the Sunni minority would go on slaughtering the other 80% of the population at about the the same rate of 15,000 a year just as it had under Saddam for 23 years. Hopefully, it will be the Iraqi Army, restrained from genocide by a residual American presence, that finally makes it clear to the Sunni minority that they cannot win. Already, many Sunni who could afford to leave have done so and now penniless Sunni refugees have begun arriving in neighboring countries. The Sunni may yet get rid of the Americans and the Shiite led government, but not if the new American president in 2008 holds the line against instability.

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