CFR: The Candidates on Iraq

The foreign policy issue already framing the 2008 presidential election is the war in Iraq. The war's growing unpopularity among Americans, coupled with nightly images of civilian and soldier casualties, will only add to the candidates' need to craft a plan to win the war. On this issue, the candidates are divided between supporting the president's strategy to surge more troops into central Iraq versus establishing a timetable, complete with benchmarks, to eventually pull out U.S. forces and possibly withhold funding for the war effort. Further, there are sharp philosophical divisions among the candidates and their parties over whether Iraq symbolizes the central front in the larger war on terrorism, rather than an isolated civil war between sectarian factions with a long history of mutual animosity.

Joseph Biden, Jr.
Although Sen. Biden (D-DE) initially supported the war in 2002, he has become one of its fiercest critics in the Senate. With Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden proposed a five-point plan (PDF) for the future of Iraq. The plan calls for a federalized Iraq with three regional governments (Kurd, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab) and a centralized government for management of "truly common interests" like oil and border defense. The plan also advocates a "regional non-aggression pact" and a redeployment of U.S. troops by the end of 2007. Biden says that a "small residual force" of U.S. troops should remain in the region even after that redeployment. Still, Biden strongly opposes permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. In August 2006, Biden sponsored an amendment, which passed, opposing any attempt to create permanent bases in Iraq.

In early 2007, Biden cosponsored the Iraq War Policy Bill, which expressed disagreement with President Bush's troop surge plan, though it did call for a continuation of military operations against al-Qaeda and other insurgents in Anbar province. That bill failed in the Senate.

Biden also sponsored the Iraq War Policy resolution in January 2007. That measure expressed that "it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating the United States military force presence in Iraq." The resolution also failed in the Senate.

Hillary Clinton
Like Biden, Sen. Clinton (D-NY) supported the invasion of Iraq at its advent, but now opposes it and claims that as president, she would end the war. Clinton opposed the 2007 escalation of the war. In early 2007, Clinton proposed the Iraq Troop Protection and Reduction Act. That bill, which would have prevented an increase in troops in Iraq above the level of January 1, 2007, had no cosponsors and never reached a vote.

Clinton also opposes the establishment of permanent military bases in Iraq, although she, like Biden, does expect there to be a need for a "reduced residual force," perhaps stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan, even after troop redeployment. Clinton cosponsored Sen. Joe Biden's Iraq War Policy resolution in January 2007. In 2002, Clinton voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq, and has been widely criticized for her refusal to apologize for that vote. Still, she has said, "If I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way." A new book by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times, excerpted here, criticizes her for failing to read the ninety-page October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report, which contained several caveats about Iraq's WMD capabilities.

Christopher Dodd
Sen. Dodd (D-CT) has become a prominent critic of the Iraq war, although he too initially supported it. He has said repeatedly that "there will be no military victory in Iraq."

Dodd opposed Bush's troop surge plan and has called for a redeployment of U.S. troops. With Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Harry Reid (D-NV), Dodd backed a May 2007 amendment that would implement a deadline for troop withdrawal within ten months and cut off funding by mid-2008.

Dodd has said that he sees no need to create permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, and says the United States already has "plenty of base capacity in the region."

John Edwards
As a senator in 2002, Edwards voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq, a move he later said he regretted making (WashPost).

He says that as president, he would end the war in Iraq. Edwards' plan for Iraq includes capping funding for anything more than a hundred thousand troops as a move against Bush's surge. He said in a virtual town hall meeting that he would also "force an immediate withdrawal of forty thousand to fifty thousand troops, which should come out of the north and the south of Iraq."

Edwards says he would not leave any permanent military bases in Iraq upon withdrawing the U.S. troops. However, he said in a September 2007 Foreign Affairs article, the United States will need to retain "quick-reaction forces in Kuwait and a significant naval presence in the Persian Gulf" as well as "some security capabilities" in Baghdad's Green Zone to guard the U.S. Embassy. In January 2007, Edwards said if he is elected, he will withdraw U.S. troops (NYT) who are training the Iraqi army and police within 10 months.

Edwards says that he would also convene "direct talks" with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria. He would also call a "multiparty peace conference" to end sectarian violence in Iraq. Edwards also criticized "war profiteering" in Iraq, and has said he would hold corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel accountable "for their wrongdoing."

Mike Gravel
Gravel favors an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. If elected, Gravel says he will "call for a U.S. corporate withdrawal from Iraq and hand over reconstruction contacts to Iraqi businesses which will empower Iraqi nationals to reconstruct their own country." Gravel opposed the war from its start in 2002. In an April 2007 Democratic debate, Gravel encouraged Congress to pass a law "making it a felony to stay" in Iraq.

Dennis Kucinich
Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) is one of the sharpest critics of the Iraq war and one of the few congressmen who opposed it (PDF) in 2002. Kucinich's twelve-point plan for Iraq includes a complete withdrawal. Upon pulling out, Kucinich calls for an "international security and peacekeeping force to move in," led by the United Nations.

Kucinich would turn all U.S. contracting business in Iraq over to the Iraqi government and call on the international community for more reconstruction aid. Like many of his fellow candidates, Kucinich advocates a regional conference to help stabilize Iraq. He argues that the United States should then fund a national reconciliation conference under the auspices of the United Nations.

Kucinich introduced a House resolution in early 2007 "to end the occupation of Iraq immediately." That bill, which would request that the international community supply peacekeeping forces to "move in as our troops leave," has not yet been voted on. He criticized congressional lawmakers who favor ending the war but supported the White House's request for more funding.

Barack Obama
Sen. Obama (D-IL) writes in Foreign Affairs that the United States needs to move beyond Iraq and "refocus our attention on the broader Middle East." One of the few presidential candidates who opposed the war (PDF) from the start, he says there is "no military solution" to the situation in Iraq. In January 2007, Obama proposed the Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007, which would reverse the troop surge and redeploy U.S. troops to Afghanistan and other locations in phases. He favors more funds for U.S. military equipment like night-vision goggles and reinforced Humvees, though his recent refusal to sign a war funding bill came under criticism from presidential aspirant John McCain (R-AZ), who, among other things, accused the senator of misspelling "flak jacket." Under Obama's plan, there may be a residual troop presence (NYT) in Iraq for security and training purposes. His bill has not yet been voted on.

In September 2007, Obama released his plan (PDF) to "responsibly end the war in Iraq," calling for a complete redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2009, starting immediately. He also advocates a UN-led Iraqi constitutional convention in order to forge national reconciliation and to reach compromises on federalism, oil revenue sharing, and "de-Ba'athification." As president, Obama says he would establish an "international working group" to solve the Iraqi refugee crisis.

Obama opposes the establishment of permanent U.S. military bases (USA Today) in Iraq.

Bill Richardson
Richardson often cites his work in the mid-1990s as a hostage negotiator for the Clinton administration, specifically his efforts to free a pair of American hostages in Iraqi custody, as evidence he understands the politics of Iraq. He calls the current war "a disaster" and advocates a redeployment of U.S. troops. He says some troops should be sent to Afghanistan "to stop the resurgence of the Taliban and to fight the real terrorists who attacked this country on 9/11." His seven-point "new realism plan" for Iraq calls on Congress to de-authorize the war and set a deadline for troop withdrawal by the end of 2007. Unlike Clinton and Biden, Richardson says there should be no residual troops left in Iraq after the United States pulls out of the region. "Most Iraqis, and most others in the region, believe that we are there for the Iraqis' oil," he says. By pulling out completely, "we would deprive our enemies of this propaganda tool," he says. Richardson also calls for an "Iraqi reconciliation conference" and supports more regional participation from Iraqi neighbors like Syria and Iran.

Sam Brownback
Sen. Brownback (R-KS) backs the White House's war efforts in Iraq and maintains that "the region and the world are safer now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power." However, Brownback did not support the troop surge. Instead, he has called for a strong diplomatic effort in the region. Like Biden, Brownback supports a "three-state, one-country solution" in Iraq.

In 2002, Brownback voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq.

James Gilmore
Gilmore supports the troop surge, and opposes any attempt (Virginian-Pilot) to impose timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Still, in June 2007, Gilmore published an open letter to Bush in the Washington Post urging him to "stop thinking it is our responsibility to solve the Iraq conflict" and redefine the goals in Iraq "in terms of America's national interest." In that letter, Gilmore proposed a policy of "maintaining a military presence needed to preserve democracy" and initiating special operations against terrorists, but drawing down troop levels in Iraq. This, he says, would "save U.S. lives and tax dollars."

Rudolph Giuliani
Giuliani is a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, including Bush's troop surge plan, but he says the plan needs some quantitative means by which to measure progress. "You need statistics," (FOX) he said in January 2007. "You need to be able to determine whether or not you've brought the violence down. If it doesn't work, then you got to put more people in."

Giuliani opposes any "artificial timeline" for troop withdrawal from Iraq, which he says would be tantamount to giving America's enemies "a printed-out list of how it's going to retreat (ChiTrib) to its enemy." He is steadfast in his support for the war, which he considers part of the larger global war on terror.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Giuliani generally praised Bush's agenda in Iraq, but said the administration's "communications effort" with the general public regarding the war was lacking. He also criticized the administration's disbanding of the Iraqi infrastructure, which he said was "clearly a mistake."

Mike Huckabee
Huckabee generally supports the Bush administration's agenda in Iraq. He says that setting any timetable for troop withdrawal is "a mistake" and also supports the surge effort. Huckabee favors inviting Iraq's neighbors to "become financially and militarily committed to stabilizing Iraq now rather than financially and militarily committed to widening the war later." Huckabee pledged in Foreign Affairs not to withdraw troops from Iraq "any faster" than Gen. David Petraeus recommends. Still, Huckabee has criticized the Bush administration's handling of the war. "We did not send enough troops to Iraq initially," he wrote.

Duncan Hunter
Rep. Hunter (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and one of the few presidential candidates who read the October 2002 NIE report, is a staunch supporter of the war in Iraq. He supported (San Diego Union-Tribune) the troop surge and is one of the only congressmen whose child has served in Iraq (San Diego Union-Tribune).

Hunter voted in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

John McCain
Sen. McCain (R-AZ) continues to support the war effort, and is one of the most outspoken proponents of Bush's surge strategy, even arguing that the escalation does not go far enough. He supported the president's efforts to increase the size of the U.S. standing military by 92,000 soldiers and Marines. On improving Iraqi security, McCain cautions that regional talks with Iran and Syria may not prove effective. "Our interests in Iraq diverge significantly from those of Damascus and Tehran, and this is unlikely to change under the current regimes," he says.

In a recent press appearance, McCain tripped up by referring to U.S. soldiers' lives "wasted" in Iraq, but followed up that he had meant to say "sacrificed." In February 2007, McCain coauthored a resolution calling on Congress to provide the U.S. forces with the "necessary support." The resolution also calls for the Iraqi government to meet eleven benchmarks on issues of security, economic performance, and governance.

In 2002, McCain voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq.

Ron Paul
Rep. Paul (R-TX) is one of the Republicans most critical of the Iraq war and one of only six House Republicans to vote against the 2002 resolution authorizing the war. Paul cosponsored the Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007, which, if passed, would have stopped the troop surge in Iraq and begun redeployment of U.S. troops by May 1, 2007. That act was never voted on.

Mitt Romney
In speeches through the spring of 2007, Romney said he supported efforts to include Iraq's neighbors in security negotiations. He has pressed Arab governments in the region to do more to "support Iraq's nascent government." He favors the president's surge strategy and opposes plans to pull out of Iraq in the near future or to carve up the country into three regions because, as he warns in Foreign Affairs, "Iran could seize the Shiite south, al-Qaeda could dominate the Sunni west, and Kurdish nationalism could destabilize the border with Turkey." In general, Romney views the Iraqi conflict as part of a larger campaign against radical Islam, whose "over-arching conflict and goal [is] replacing all modern Islamic states with a caliphate, destroying America, and conquering the world."

Tom Tancredo
Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) opposes the troop surge and calls for disengagement to "let regional powers and Iraqi factions cooperate to forge a new balance of power" by November 2007.

Tancredo cosponsored the 2002 House resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. During an exchange between Giuliani and Paul at the May 2007 Republican debate over whether U.S. foreign policy in Iraq might have caused 9/11, Tancredo interjected to say "they would be trying to kill us [even if we were not in Iraq], because it is a dictate of their religion, at least a part of it. And we have to defend ourselves."

Fred Thompson
As senator from Tennessee at the time, Thompson voted in favor of the 2002 congressional authorization of the use of force in Iraq. He warned that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and that it was only a matter of time before he developed nuclear weapons (Word Doc).

Thompson has acknowledged mismanagement of the war, but continues to support the troop surge and firmly opposes the imposition of a timetable for troop withdrawal (USA Today). Details of Thompson's future plan for Iraq remain vague.

Thompson also has said the Democrats' sweeping victory in the November 2006 elections did not stem in part from public disapproval of the war in Iraq, as exit polls indicated (Huffington Post). Instead, he says, Republican spending and "unrestrained partisanship" were responsible for voter discontent with the GOP.

Tommy Thompson
Thompson says talk of withholding funding or withdrawing forces in the short run is "shortsighted and counterproductive." But he acknowledges the difficulties in resolving the conflict, adding: "It is unrealistic for us to believe we're going to end these divisions and force peace upon people who do not share our goals." Thompson supports a three-step plan: first, have the Iraqi parliament vote on whether U.S. forces should remain in Iraq; second, hold local elections in all of Iraq's eighteen provinces; third, Iraqi oil should be split three ways, with one-third to the federal government, one-third to the territories, and one-third to the Iraqi people. This way, he argued in a May 2007 Republican debate, all Iraqis will "feel they have a stake in their government."