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Edwards vs. Clinton on Ending the War

In one of the sharpest cuts taken at Hillary Clinton in last night's Democratic debate at Dartmouth College, John Edwards criticized the senator from New York for stating recently that she planned to keep some combat forces in Iraq for years to come. "I heard Senator Clinton say on Sunday that she wants to continue combat missions in Iraq," Edwards said, referring to Clinton's remarks on the political talk shows. "To me, that's a continuation of the war. I do not think we should continue combat missions in Iraq. When I'm on a stage with the Republican nominee come fall 2008 I'm going to make clear I'm for ending the war."

Edwards' hope was to paint Clinton as a hawk who would not deliver the clean break from President Bush's Iraq policy that most Democratic voters long for. But is Edwards' thinking on Iraq really all that much different? Even as he attacks Clinton for her plan to "continue combat missions," he has made clear in recent months that after pulling troops out of Iraq, he would leave some behind in the region -- most likely Kuwait -- for the express purpose of conducting targeted combat missions inside Iraq, whether to attack Al Qaeda strongholds, quell a genocide or protect the U.S. Embassy. In a Sept. 7 speech in lower Manhattan in which he laid out his counter-terrorism platform, Edwards said, "Even though the presence of U.S. troops has served as an attractive target for terrorists, our eventual withdrawal will not remove the threat. As president, I will redeploy forces, troops, into quick reaction forces outside of Iraq to perform targeted missions against Al Qaeda cells and to prevent genocide or a regional spillover of civil war."

Is there really much difference between having such a quick reaction force stationed in a remote base in the Iraqi desert versus having it just across the country's border in Kuwait? The Edwards campaign argues there is -- Clinton's troops stationed inside Iraq would be greater risk of attack, would loom as provocative symbols of a lingering "occupation," and would inevitably get drawn into fighting much like they are engaged in today. Edwards' envisioned combat missions for troops stationed elsewhere would be far more narrowly defined, the campaign says.

"Senator Clinton keeps combat troops in Iraq. That means she continues the war," Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz said today. "John Edwards will end the war. Being just a little bit better than the Republicans is not a good enough reason to be President of the United States."

The debate shows no sign of fading. Edwards was pressed on the finer points of his plan today by an eighth-grader at a New Hampshire school, who asked Edwards why he couldn't guarantee that all U.S. forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the next president's first term. "Last night, I watched the debate and Congressman Kucinich said he would end the war in three months and you said it would take a whole term, and I was wondering why," said the student, James Harvard, according to the Associated Press. Edwards responded that the United States has troops in many parts of the world for various purposes, and that some forces might have to remain in Iraq. But, returning to his distinction vis a vis Clinton, he said that the key was combat troops -- and that he would have those out of Iraq "in about nine months."

--Alec MacGillis

By Washington Post editors  |  September 27, 2007; 3:45 PM ET
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