The Iraq Primary

For a moment, at least, John McCain and Hillary Clinton shared a common cause. It was one week after the midterm elections. They were back in the Senate, back in their seats on the Armed Services Committee, back to venting about Iraq. The target was Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command in the Mideast. McCain chafed at Abizaid's assertion that there were encouraging signs in the troubled conflict. Is "it encouraging," McCain wondered, "that people dressed in police uniforms are able to come in and kidnap 150 people and leave with them ... through checkpoints?" Clinton was also quick to pounce. "The situation in Iraq is not improving," she told Abizaid. "Hope is not a strategy."

Hope is no strategy: a lesson Clinton and other potential presidential candidates are quickly coming to learn. As the Bush presidency approaches its seventh year and the war continues, Iraq is no longer just George W. Bush's problem. Washington waits for a miracle pill from James Baker and Lee Hamilton's Iraq Study Group. But leaders in both parties know that a truly hap-py solution to the conflict is nowhere in sight--and may never be.

That could mean trouble for the 2008 front runners, Clinton and McCain. The Arizona senator stands apart from the political pack in calling for an increased U.S. presence in Iraq--arguing that the military should invest as many as 100,000 more troops on the ground to adequately secure the country. Clinton, meanwhile, has angered many in her party's antiwar wing by refusing to repudiate her initial vote to go to war--but has yet to fully articulate how exactly she would clean up the Iraq mess. Both senators were present at the conflict's creation and, if history is a guide, voters may well yearn for a fresh set of eyes to see it through to its conclusion. But, in the nascent presidential campaign, few would-be candidates have stepped forward with their own strategies for ending the war. Baker and Hamilton may offer contenders a road map to follow, but for now, candidates are still groping for a comfortable position on the way ahead in Iraq. A user's guide to the candidates' positions on the war, and who they talk to on the subject:


Mccain was an early administration ally on Iraq, arguing that removing Saddam Hussein was vital to the broader war on terror. But even as he advocated for intervention, he was kibitzing with Republican war critics like Bush 41 national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who worried that the Iraqi adventure would prove destabilizing. After the invasion, McCain began a relentless drumbeat for more U.S. troops.

McCain is that rare Republican with sympathy for both his party's realist and idealist wings. A child of the military establishment and a former prisoner of war, he is well-acquainted with the human costs of war and chats frequently with "realist" war critics like Scowcroft and Colin Powell. But he also consults with intellectuals like Bill Kristol, the influential neocon thinker, and continues to speak of Iraq's potential for transforming the Middle East. If McCain does make a White House run, his foreign policy would be coordinated by Randy Scheunemann, an analyst at the conservative think tank Project for the New American Century who founded the bipartisan Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an independent group that advocated for regime change.


From her first hours in the Senate, Clinton was careful to work on her national-security credentials, joining the Armed Services Committee and positioning herself as a strong friend of the military. She voted for the Iraq war and never expressed regret over doing so, even as the war became increasingly unpopular with her party's base. But by persistently criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the war, she has so far managed to avoid the wrath of the antiwar activists that dogged Joe Lieberman in 2006.

But now that she's in the majority, and seriously eying a run at the White House, what would she do about Iraq? She has so far advocated the creation of an oil trust--granting a share in oil profits to all Iraqis. She's backed a phased redeployment of troops--though she hasn't said how many troops would be redeployed or where they would go--and championed engagement with Syria and Iran. But she has yet to offer a comprehensive plan of her own. "It's for the president of the United States to present a plan to the American people," said her spokesman, Philippe Reines.

Clinton has developed a close working relationship with Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and the Senate Democrats' point man on Iraq. She also talks to veterans of her husband's foreign-policy team such as former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a shortlist candidate for secretary of State in any Democratic administration. Indeed, some Democrats think the very vastness of Clinton's network has constrained her from articulating a clear plan for ending the conflict. "It's like the Kerry campaign," says a veteran of that presidential effort, who now works on foreign policy in the Senate and requested anonymity discussing the politics of national security. "It's hard to get anything past the bottleneck of has-beens and wanna-bes."


One of Obama's chief assets as a potential challenger to Clinton: consistency on Iraq. He's said that he and the former First Lady had "differing assessments" of the need to go to war in the first place--and, indeed, as a state senator in the fall of 2002, he spoke out passionately against the war while Clinton was voting for it. He has resisted taking a strong position on an exit strategy for Iraq, saying simply, "I'm not a military man." Obama has called on Senate foreign-policy aide Mark Lippert and human-rights expert Samantha Power in formulating positions on international affairs.


Long mistrusted bythe right for his stands on abortion and gay rights, Giuliani has tried to shore up his conservative credentials with a vociferous defense of Bush's Iraq policy. He's said withdrawing troops would be akin to the Union pulling out halfway through the U.S. Civil War--and called on America to "do whatever it takes" to win. His staunch defense of the war has helped win brownie points with the White House. But aides say his commitment to the Iraq cause is genuine. He is influenced, friends say, by a crop of A-list advisers at Stanford's hawkish Hoover Institution--among them former secretary of State George P. Shultz, Reagan national-security adviser Richard Allen and Reagan policy adviser Martin Anderson.


More than any other top-tier candidate, Romney, the retiring governor of Massachusetts, can legitimately claim he's had nothing to do with the mess in Iraq. But as he travels the country selling himself as the strongest potential challenger to McCain, Romney has had to scramble to make up for his lack of foreign-policy bona fides. In May he traveled to Iraq and borrowed a White House talking point, warning that the U.S. couldn't "cut and run." In September, he conferred with L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. viceroy in Iraq, about the war. Aides say Romney is still in the early stages of educating himself about the conflict and has no plans to offer concrete strategies soon.


Support for the Iraq war caused Edwards trouble in the 2004 Democratic primary. So in the spring of 2005, the former North Carolina senator asked aides to begin rethinking his policy on the war. The result: a Washington Post op-ed saying "I was wrong" and calling for a drawdown in troops and increased engagement with Iraq's neighbors in the Middle East. At the time, some close to Edwards worried that the former vice presidential candidate was taking too firm a stance on a rapidly shifting war. But now, with many Democrats making the case for phased withdrawal, Team Edwards feels the rest of the party is coming around to his view. Edwards has focused on expanding his own foreign-policy credentials, but consults with such Clinton-era thinkers as Holbrooke and Strobe Talbott. Edwards's Iraq repudiation may help him emerge as the antiwar alternative to Clinton's stubborn hawk.


A conservative Catholic, the Kansas senator's chief appeal will lie with religious Republicans who like his views on social issues. But Brownback has long been an Iraq hawk, co-sponsoring the 1998 Senate bill that made "regime change" U.S. policy in dealing with Saddam Hussein. After Saddam was toppled, Brownback encouraged similar regime change in Iran, declaring, "We'll never have true stability in the region as long as Iran remains in power." Brownback's chief foreign-policy interest, however, is aiding Africa, a cause on which he's worked with other conservative Christians as well as liberals like Madeleine Albright and Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs.


The democrats' big-gest long shot happens to be the author of the party's most comprehensive Iraq plan. Earlier this year, he and former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb produced a plan calling for the division of Iraq into three autonomous states. The incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is plugged into the group of retired generals who voiced their opposition to Rumsfeld's management of the war earlier this year.