With a revamped withdrawal proposal, Clinton is pressing Obama on military contractors and redeployment strategy. Yet the candidates' plans still hardly differ, and neither candidate would completely withdraw troops from Iraq.
In a much-hyped speech at George Washington University last week, Sen. Hillary Clinton laid out her revised plan to "end the war in Iraq."
However, aside from a vague commitment to halt the use of armed military contractors, her plan differs only slightly from Sen. Barack Obama's and from her previous proposals. Both candidates' plans would leave a substantial number of US troops in Iraq without a timetable for complete withdrawal.
"I will ... work to remove armed private military contractors who are conducting combat-oriented and security functions in Iraq," Clinton said. "For five years their behavior and lack of supervision and accountability have often eroded our credibility, endangered US and Iraqi lives and undermined our mission.... I've already cosponsored the Stop Security Outsourcing Act requiring that security services for personnel at any US diplomatic or consular mission be provided only by federal government personnel."
However, Clinton signed on as a cosponsor to the bill on February 29, just days after The Nation magazine published comments made by an adviser to the Barack Obama campaign indicating Obama would not rule out the continued use of armed military contractors. The Clinton campaign had not addressed the issue previously.
In her speech on March 17, Clinton attacked Obama on this point: "Now, Senator Obama and I have a substantive disagreement here. He won't rule out continuing to use armed private military contractors in Iraq to do jobs that historically have been done by the US military or government personnel. When I am president I will ask the Joint Chiefs for their help in reducing reliance on armed private military contractors, with the goal of ultimately implementing a ban on such contractors."
Obama's campaign responded by pointing to Obama's efforts to enforce contractor accountability - he introduced a bill last year requiring more Congressional oversight over contractors - and Clinton's history of inaction on the issue.
"Proving once again that she will say anything to win an election, Hillary Clinton is attacking Barack Obama on an issue where he has led and she did nothing until her campaign fell behind," said Obama campaign spokesman Dan Pfeiffer in a statement. "Senator Clinton did nothing when the use of contractors was expanded in the Clinton administration, she did nothing when Senator Obama sent a bill on contractor accountability to her committee, and after more than four years of war in Iraq she claimed to not even know contractors were unaccountable even though she sits on the Senate committee that oversees them."
Obama's legislation would subject all military contractors working abroad to US civilian law.
The fight over what to do about Iraq has divided the House of Representatives' Out of Iraq Caucus, the most vocal group of elected officials who support complete withdrawal from Iraq. Eighteen of the 73 members of the group wrote a letter endorsing Clinton's plan for Iraq. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California), two of the caucus' most prominent members, did not sign the letter.
The letter applauds Clinton's stated goal of beginning troop withdrawals in the first 60 days of her presidency as well as her legislation to bar the Bush administration from entering into long-term agreements with the government of Iraq without Congressional approval.
In a plan published on her web site, Clinton has set goals for "phased redeployment." She plans to convene her National Security Council within the first days of her presidency and instruct them to create a plan to begin withdrawing troops.
Obama's Iraq plan mirrors Clinton's in most of its basic tenets. He calls for one to two combat brigades to be redeployed from Iraq every month.
Clinton proposes the same troop pullout rate as Obama, though she refrains from specifying a goal date for full combat-troop withdrawal. Obama's plan sets a target of 16 months from the time he enters office. Yet during the fall debates, neither candidate would guarantee withdrawal from Iraq by the end of their first term.
"I think it's hard to project four years from now," Obama said in September in New Hampshire. "I believe that we should have all our troops out by 2013, but I don't want to make promises not knowing what the situation's going to be three or four years out."
Obama's plan allows for residual forces to remain in Iraq after redeployment ends, to conduct "targeted strikes" on al-Qaeda. Clinton said she will order "specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region."
Obama qualifies that provision more narrowly than Clinton does - he proposes strikes only if "al-Qaeda attempts to build a base in Iraq." Taken optimistically, such a plan could reduce post-redeployment troops to as few as 5,000, while the Clinton plan's more general scope would open the door for higher troop levels, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco.
"She's more vague about the number of troops she anticipates being there at the end, as well as what their responsibilities would be," Zunes told Truthout. "Under Clinton's plan it would be hard to imagine having fewer than 40,000 troops [remaining]."
Five thousand troops may seem a minuscule number, compared with current levels. Yet, the very principle of keeping troops in Iraq past the date of "withdrawal" rings false, says Robert Naiman, the national coordinator of Just Foreign Policy.
"If the Iraqi government is sovereign, should the US be declaring unilaterally that it will strike al-Qaeda in Iraq?" Naiman asked, speaking to Truthout. "Presumably, the sovereign Iraqi government should be in charge of dealing with terrorism within its borders, and we should decide how we want to address requests for assistance, rather than declaring unilaterally that we will attack, or that we will attack if they 'attempt to build a base,' whatever that means."
Moreover, like Clinton, Obama would maintain the US military presence in the region. In a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Obama said troops withdrawn from Iraq would be redeployed to nearby countries, "reassuring our allies that we will stay engaged in the Middle East."
Noticeably missing from both plans is a mention of who will control Iraq's oil reserves and who will guard oil pipelines and other infrastructure upon US withdrawal.
In January, top Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod told Truthout that under an Obama presidency, US troops would not be used to guard Iraqi oil infrastructure. When asked about the use of US troops to guard Iraqi oil infrastructure, Mark Penn, campaign strategist and pollster for the Clinton campaign declined to answer.
As the Democratic presidential candidates stick to their twin "phased withdrawal" proposals, a number of progressive plans have cropped up to challenge them, arguing for a quick, total pullout of US troops.
At last week's Take Back America conference, Washington state Democratic Congressional challenger Darcy Burner introduced "A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq," a series of proposals based on the Iraq Study Group recommendations and previously introduced Iraq withdrawal legislation.
The plan, backed by 23 House candidates as well as Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton and Capt. Larry Seaquist, would end military operations, fuel diplomacy, phase out the use of armed contractors, fully fund veterans' health care, address humanitarian concerns in Iraq and develop US-based energy sources. It explicitly rejects leaving US troops in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline.
"The continued presence in Iraq of so-called 'residual' forces beyond the minimum needed for standard embassy-protection would be a serious mistake," the Responsible Plan states. "Any such troops would become a magnet for insurgent attacks and unless they did nothing at all would inevitably become players in Iraq's domestic political disputes, thus forcing the United States to continue to play referee to Iraq's civil conflicts."
Similar plans from the Progressive Caucus have been ignored or written off as untenable by Democratic leadership over the course of the war. Yet, in the context of the presidential campaign, such plans exemplify the pull of the progressive base. That base, according to Zunes, exerts more direct pressure on Obama than on Clinton, making a firm commitment to withdrawal key to his campaign.
"Both candidates will be between Iraq and a hard place," Zunes said, noting that decision-making during the first couple of years of the next presidency will be tough. "But Obama's core constituency tends to be from the antiwar wing of the party; that's where he's getting his political pressure. So, even if they look the same on paper, I would trust Obama a lot more to get us out of there."
When it comes to what would actually unfold if one of the Democrats took office, though, all bets should probably be off. Naiman warns, in the end, a campaign promise is never golden.
"Wilson ran as the peace candidate in 1916," he said. "Johnson ran as the peace candidate in 1964. Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war. Bill Clinton slammed NAFTA. George Jr. said the US wouldn't engage in nation building."
Although Naiman predicts pressure from the Democratic base will prevent either Clinton or Obama from continuing the occupation full swing once in office, the manner in which redeployment will take place may be anyone's guess.