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Iraq War Disquiets Dems Vying to Be President

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

This year's presidential campaign so far has been about two things: the war in Iraq and the race to raise money. In a moment we'll hear about one Republican candidate's money troubles. First, we'll look at the trouble the war in Iraq is causing Democrats.

INSKEEP: The Democratic candidates for president all say they want to end the war and bring the troops home. They do not agree on how they want to get out, and some of the leading candidates are not too eager to talk about the details of their withdrawal plans.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.

MARA LIASSON: Here's Senator Hillary Clinton in Iowa last month delivering a speech on how she would end the war.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Our message to the president is clear. It is time to begin ending this war. Not next year, not next month, but today.

LIASSON: It sounds like Clinton wants to end the war as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. But 33 minutes into her 37-minute address, she talked about protecting our strategic interests in the region.

Sen. CLINTON: If in the future Iraq becomes a breeding ground for exporting terrorists, as it appears it already is, that is a great worry for our country. So as we redeploy our troops from Iraq, I will not let down my guard against terrorism. I will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations in the region.

LIASSON: That sounds like Clinton intends to remain engaged militarily in Iraq. Her chief rival for the nomination - Senator Barack Obama - has a similar plan. He says he would withdraw combat troops by next spring, but like Clinton he'd leave enough troops in Iraq for counterterrorism, force protection and training. That's a lot of missions. And according to foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon, who calls himself a hard-power Democrat, Clinton and Obama would both need a lot of U.S. troops to carry them out.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Foreign Policy Analyst): The other missions could certainly involve a very large number of U.S. forces. The idea of helping the Iraqis in certain specific parts of their country, helping protect our diplomatic presence and being able to go after al-Qaida in a pinch, those missions could theoretically involve 20,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops.

LIASSON: Other Democratic candidates want a faster, more complete pullout, like Bill Richardson, who said this at last week's YouTube debate.

Gov. BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): I'm trying to provoke a debate here because there's a difference between the senators and me on when we get our troops out. I've been very clear - six months but no residual forces. Senator Clinton has a plan that I understand is maybe 50,000 residual forces.

LIASSON: But so far Richardson hasn't been able to provoke much of a debate. Clinton has refused to set a date certain for withdrawing all troops from Iraq, saying only she supports a goal of April 2008, and she's refused to say how many troops she'd leave in Iraq, saying only that she'd consult with the military. Richard Holbrooke, who's one of Clinton's top foreign policy advisers, says Clinton doesn't want to box herself in.

Mr. RICHARD HOLBROOKE (Foreign Policy Adviser): Journalists are legitimately asking for precision, but serious people, responsible people seeking the presidency, are right not to be specific in an area where it would be irresponsible. And one thing about Hillary Clinton is she's not going to be irresponsible in the quest for the nomination and the presidency. I know that she weighs what she says now carefully within the context of the fact that what she says now should not be something which would complicate the job of being president.

LIASSON: Or for that matter the job of being a general election candidate next year when the situation in Iraq may look different and the political pressures may be greater to show voters that she is, as her campaign constantly stresses, serious and responsible, ready to be commander in chief.

In an interview with NPR, Barack Obama said there's another reason the Democrats haven't been talking a lot about how they'd withdraw from Iraq.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): My impression is that everybody believes that it is time for us to get out, that we're going to have to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. And we can't even get into a conversation about what we're going to be doing as we start withdrawing troops unless we can force the president's hand to change course.

LIASSON: Politically, the current stalemate between the president and the Congress is actually helping the Democratic candidates avoid a discussion about the details of withdrawal, but that could change when the debate moves beyond the simplistic out now versus stay the course. When it does, says liberal blogger Jerome Armstrong, Democratic primary voters will start to look for a candidate who shares their precise position on the war.

Mr. JEROME ARMSTRONG (Blogger): Get out of Iraq completely, like no presence left there whatsoever. I don't think the Democratic base will have any tolerance at all, if we are able to elect a Democratic candidate for president next time, for anybody leaving troops in longer than a year.

LIASSON: This weekend all the Democratic candidates will be appearing in Chicago at the yearly Kos convention, where they'll address thousands of bloggers who share this view. But don't expect either Clinton or Obama to use the event to talk about the fine print of their plans to withdraw from Iraq.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: So whether to leave Iraq is one question. How to leave Iraq is another. You can get some analysis of what it would take to withdraw at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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