Clinton and Obama Can't Count On Iraq to Win the White House

McCain has an easier task appealing to voters on the war.

Protests in Washington, D.C., marked the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Protests in Washington, D.C., marked the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq.

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Growing tension. In speaking about Iraq, McCain is upbeat. "We succeeded militarily to pacify or bring under a security environment large parts of the country," he told one rally. "Now, we're succeeding politically." But White says that McCain is "dangerously overselling" both the security and political progress. The Sunni "awakening," which has been by far the most pivotal factor in reducing violence, could easily be reversed. Former Sunni insurgents are being paid with U.S. cash to help keep the peace, but tensions are growing between Iraq's largely Shiite security forces and the Sunni squads. "If we continue the withdrawals, we are going to have these squads in political limbo and with tremendous hostility to the Shiites, running more often into Shiite-dominated security forces," says White. "We are going to have more and more incidents."

On the political side, many of the reconciliation benchmarks Bush laid out last year remain unfulfilled. Bush and McCain have touted a law passed by Iraq's parliament aimed at bringing the mostly Sunni former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into government posts. But the final version of the law has a provision that could make things worse by allowing the sacking of many former Baath members currently employed by the government. "I think it's all smoke and mirrors," says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan, "but who in America is actually going to follow this kind of thing?"

Troop levels are shaping up as the big campaign battleground, but it's not clear the candidates' policies would, in practice, be all that different. McCain, who six months after the invasion started calling for Bush to send more troops, has not been specific about his plans for future deployments. But his robust rhetoric will run up against the massive toll that six years in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on the U.S. military. The next president could inherit as many as 15 combat brigades, or 135,000 troops, including support personnel, in Iraq, a level most military experts believe cannot be sustained for long. If the mission doesn't shift from active combat to more of a monitoring role by the end of 2009, "the strain on the Army and the Marine Corps will reach the point where there are serious questions about whether the forces can sustain a prolonged deployment," says Cordesman.

If a McCain administration might have trouble sustaining such high troop levels, the Democrats will have just as much trouble meeting their own ambitious withdrawal timetables. Both Clinton and Obama have proposed pulling out troops at the rate of one or two brigades, or up to 16,000 soldiers, a month.

That pace is about as fast as the U.S. military could pull out, says retired Gen. Jack Keane, a backer of the surge, adding, "It is a precipitous withdrawal if executed regardless of consequences." Another retired general, Barry McCaffrey, says that while troop levels will have to fall, going below 80,000 troops is risky. "That's almost damn near the floor," he says. In the past, when U.S. troops have left areas, violence has flared. If this happens again, both candidates have conceded that withdrawals could be suspended. "Obama has said that if a genocide starts, that's an international problem that needs an international solution," says retired Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, an Obama adviser. "That's not sectarian violence but crimes against humanity."

Both Clinton and Obama have talked about using troop withdrawals as a lever to force Iraqis to accelerate reconciliation or face even greater chaos. But that could backfire if Iraqi leaders decide they are not ready. "If you try to force them to compromise, and they still don't, then the other possibility is massive ethnic cleansing," says Cole.

Limited options. Beyond the pace, neither is talking about full withdrawal. Their plans allow for significant numbers of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq to protect U.S. interests, go after terrorists, and, perhaps, train Iraqi forces.