Combat Troop Combat

Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have been engaged in a multicycle slapfest over whether their plans for American combat troops in Iraq constitute “continuing the war.” Edwards says he would withdraw all combat troops from Iraq but would keep a small force of 5,000 or so nearby—in Kuwait, say, or Afghanistan—to carry out “expeditions” against terrorists in Iraq. Hillary would also withdraw, but she would keep the counter-terrorist combat troops stationed in Iraq instead of outside. That’s the difference.

But to hear Edwards talk about Hillary’s plan, you’d think there was a huge gulf between them. “Senator Clinton says she will continue the occupation, keeping combat troops stationed in Iraq for combat missions,” said Edwards spokesman Chris Kofinis in a statement. Keeping them there, Edwards told the Boston Globe , is “like putting a target on the foreheads of American combat troops.” 

The fact is, the U.S. will continue to have a large presence in Iraq after the 2008 election no matter what. Assuming we maintain an embassy and keep aid workers stationed there, those units will need to be defended. If the troops defending them get attacked, the president won’t have any choice but to retaliate. And that means combat troops. Sure, military units make fat targets, as the forces currently stationed there have learned. But if attacks on noncombat troops continue, will it really matter where the intervening combat troops are officially stationed? For Edwards to act like fighting terrorists in Iraq from outside Iraq is better than fighting terrorists in Iraq in Iraq seems like a thin distinction. I know it’s a candidate’s job to tease out the differences between him and his opponents, but I don’t think this angle is working for Edwards.

Symbolically, of course, it’s a powerful distinction. Having bases in Kuwait rather than Baghdad would allow him to say the occupation is over. But, whether we hear about it or not, any future president will be forced to keep combat troops operating in Iraq. He (or she) would rather be accused of continuing an occupation than of failing to go after al-Qaida. To suggest that any two Democratic candidates ( except maybe Richardson ) diverge this point seems to be manufacturing differences.