Iraq Truth-Telling, Part II
The Fact Checker: "To be very clear about this, [Hillary Clinton] is going to stick to this plan that she has devised of bringing one to two brigades out [of Iraq] a month, whatever the realities on the ground. Is that correct?"
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson: "You are asking a question and I am giving you a one-word answer so we can be clear about this. The answer is yes."
--Clinton campaign teleconference, March 17, 2008.
Ever since she started running for president, Hillary Clinton has tried to preserve some wriggle room in promising to "end the Iraq war." At first, she was hesitant to provide any kind of timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq. Then she said that she would start withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president. Under pressure from her Democratic party rivals, she eventually started talking about withdrawing one to two brigades per month, bringing all combat troops out of the country by the end of 2009. But she usually accompanied such promises with qualifiers like "I hope" and "may withdraw."
Her communications director, Howard Wolfson, now seems to have closed off much of the remaining wriggle room in the Clinton withdrawal plan. During a teleconference called to discuss Clinton's Monday Iraq speech, I asked whether Clinton was committed to implementing the withdrawal plan, no matter what the circumstances on the ground or the advice of U.S. military commanders. After some waffling by his fellow campaign officials, Wolfson stepped in to give me a one-word response: "Yes."
For months, reporters have allowed the main Democratic candidates to talk about their plans for ending the Iraq war and bringing U.S. troops home without pinning them down about how they will respond to a sudden upsurge of violence. There has been a surrealistic quality to the Iraq war withdrawal debate, as if everything is destined to go smoothly once a U.S. president has made up his (or her) mind, and messy Iraqi reality will not intervene.
Unfortunately, the best-case scenario does not usually apply in Iraq. That is why it was perfectly appropriate for British television reporters to challenge former Obama foreign policy adviser Samantha Power about how he would respond to an unraveling security situation in the country. She gave what seemed like a common-sense response: Obama will be guided by the circumstances on the ground and the advice of his military commanders, and will not be locked into a plan that he produced more than a year earlier while running for president.
Power's candor was evidently too much for the Obama camp, which promptly disowned her remarks.
Faced with similar needling questions to those posed to Samantha Power, Clinton spokesmen adopted the opposite tack to the former Obama adviser. They insist that their candidate, if elected, will proceed with her withdrawal plans, no matter what happens in Iraq. You can listen to audio of my exchange with the Clinton people here. Here is a transcript of the most relevant portion:
Dobbs: I just wanted to follow up on the criticism of Samantha Power for saying that Obama would not be locked into a plan that he had devised as a presidential candidate. Are you saying that Sen. Clinton will follow her plan of withdrawing 1-2 brigades a month from Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground and the advice from military commanders? And even if there is a new upsurge of violence in iraq, she will stick to that plan? Or is that just a best case scenario?
Clinton Foreign Policy Director Lee Feinstein: Sen Clinton has been very very clear about what her plan is. One of her points in giving this speech is that you can count on her to implement this plan. You know there are in the world contingencies, but it is a very different matter when you enter office not intending to implement the plans that you have put out on the campaign trail, which is what we seem to have learned on the basis of the comments of a former senior aide to Sen. Obama who said exactly that , that what sen. Obama had put out on the campaign trail is not what he intends to do as president...
Dobbs: You are saying that Sen. Clinton will implement her plan, whatever the realities on the ground. You have just used this term 'contingencies.' You are basically telling us that the plan might change, is that not correct?
Clinton Policy Director Neera Tanden: No we are not saying that. We are saying that Hillary has laid out her plan in detail....When she developed the plan on Iraq, she thought through ...how she would actually implement those plans as president. She made a commitment, and that is what she will do as president.
Dobbs: To be very clear about this, she is going to stick to this plan that she has devised of bringing 1-2 brigades out a month, whatever the realities on the ground. Is that correct?
Feinstein: She has said that this is her plan. She has said what her goals are...
Dobbs: I am sorry. That is not answering my question.
Communications Director Howard Wolfson: You are asking a question and I am giving you a one-word answer so we can be clear about this. The answer is yes.
To my ear, Feinstein's use of the phrase "contingencies" implied that circumstances might arise in which it will be unrealistic to implement the Clinton withdrawal plan, as drafted on the campaign trail. But he assures me that this is not the case. He elaborated on his position in a subsequent e-mail message:
"I was clearly talking about Senator Obama and in that very exchange we unequivocally said no about whether Senator Clinton would deviate from her plan. Any other reading of this is patently ridiculous."
So there you have it: Clinton will implement her withdrawal plan as announced, no matter what happens in Iraq and no matter what advice she gets from her military commanders. Iraq may explode, but no deviations from the campaign withdrawal platform are permitted.
The Pinocchio Test
The Clinton position on Iraq still contains a little wriggle room. She has said that she will keep some "residual" forces in Iraq after December 2009 to deal with the threat from al-Qaeda, even though the bulk of U.S. forces will be withdrawn by then. Without being able to predict the future, it is impossible to know whether she will carry through on her promises. But let me know what you think.
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