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Podesta's Withdrawal at All Costs

12:46 PM, Feb 26, 2008 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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More moderate Democrats are increasingly adjusting to the reality that the Iraq surge has been a military success, and that it is starting to create conditions for workable political compromise in Baghdad as well as Iraq's provinces--see, for example, the air of desperation that has seized the hard-core anti-war crowd. Yet today's Washington Post carries an op-ed by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta clearly intended to intimidate Democratic candidates into sticking to their withdrawal pledges no matter what happens in Iraq. The article's headline, "A War We Must End," is a hint of the pay-no-attention-to-the-facts nature of the argument.

And while Podesta has enlisted his Center for American Progress colleague Larry Korb and Ray Takeyh, an expert on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, it's about as obvious as a hand grenade in a bowl of oatmeal--to quote the eminent philosopher Foghorn Leghorn--that the op-ed is little more than a political threat. "There is unease among the party's base," the three write, that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton might keep an open mind about the situation in Iraq, and that, should they be elected president, they might make a judgment based on the conditions of 2009 rather than 2006. They go on to say that the "concern" of "ardent activists" on the party's left wing itself "demonstrates the necessity" of "ending a controversial war." That is, a Democratic president must put promises to MoveOn.org above the interests of the nation. This is a level of subtlety Tony Soprano might appreciate.

But there are aspects of the op-ed that are even more unsettling. To try to inoculate a Democratic president who sticks to the withdrawal-at-all-costs pledge from a stab-in-the back Republican "narrative," the Podesta Gang claims that Iraq will be lost--indeed, is already lost--in Baghdad, not Washington. Once again the left can only see Iraq as a replay of Vietnam: that "war was lost in Southeast Asia, not in the halls of Congress," they claim, but casting David Petraeus in the role of William Westmoreland will not work. And the attempt to do so only makes the stab-in-the-back narrative more credible, and threatens to exacerbate civil-military tensions.

No one can say with certainty what Iraq will look like a year from now; the fight there has indeed been a long, hard slog and even the most optimistic assessment would grant that there's more slogging ahead. The next president may well come to the judgment that the gain is not worth the pain. But that would be a momentous decision based on something more than fear of "ardent activists" for whom an American defeat is an act of self-fulfillment.