Last month after a Dem presidential debate, I wrote that, "The Dem Primary Won't Be Decided Over Iraq":
Given the opportunity in Sunday's ABC debate to distinguish themselves from Sen. Hillary Clinton on Iraq, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards passed.
Which raises the question: how do they think they are going to dislodge her from her front-runner position?...
...she is the only candidate who reportedly believes that we should have US troops in Iraq by Jan. 2017 at least.
She has not said that publicly, but Ted Koppel has reported that she privately told a former Pentagon official who has briefed her that "she would still expect U.S. troops to be in Iraq at the end of her second term."...
... perhaps, if voters believed Clinton would not really end the war -- and primary voters really want to end the war -- that would gives voters pause.
Yet when Sunday's debate moderator George Stephanopoulos prodded the candidates to clarify their differences on Iraq, neither Edwards or Obama exploited the opening.
Now, Sen. Clinton has created a fresh opening.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you pledge that all US troops will be home over the course of your first term as president?
CLINTON: You know I'm not going to get into hypotheticals and make pledges, because I don't know what I'm going to inherit, George.
And on CBS, she said:
...there will be remaining missions. The counter-terrorism mission against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The protection of our embassy and our civilian workforce in Iraq. The continuing mission of training the Iraqi army ... There will also, in my view, be a continuing mission with respect to the Kurds in the north...
...So when I have voted to say that we're going to start withdrawing troops by a date certain, it has always including a recognition of these continuing responsibilities.
Later on Face The Nation, NY Times' David Sanger put that list of "remaining missions" in perspective: "it's very hard when you talk to Pentagon people to have them figure out how you do that with fewer than 100,000 troops."
More importantly, (putting aside the question whether we need a residual force at all) why couldn't these missions be accomplished in a relatively short time?
Al Qaeda in Iraq is overhyped. There's no need for a large US civilian workforce to remain long-term. Training the Iraqi army should not be an 10-year enterprise.
If we're not planning to occupy Iraq forever, why can't we pledge to complete these missions by 2012, if not sooner, and remove the sense of occupation among Iraqis?
Sen. Clinton's rivals have a fresh opening to ask these questions, and make the case she would not truly end the occupation while they would.
If they don't ask them, it's hard to see what other openings they can identify to dislodge Clinton from her frontrunner perch.