Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has spent the last two years commuting between states that will have the most influence in selecting the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. It seems he’s been not just talking to people but listening as well. Recently he’s been more in sync with voter opinion than the other candidates. It is not clear yet if he can turn that into enough support to overcome the glamour of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), although he’s certainly racking up some good numbers in Iowa polls.
His two years in the real world outside the Beltway seem to be letting him move beyond the conventional wisdom of Washington’s wizards — the talking heads, not the basketball team. He’s opened up some daylight between himself and the other candidates on the big issues of Iraq and healthcare. I’m tempted here to get into the latter issue and Hillary’s continuing pique over Harry and Louise and the debate over her health plan in ’93-’94, but that will have to wait for another column.
This week there was significant difference between Edwards’s view and that of the Beltway on the recently released National Intelligence Estimate. On Sunday’s talk shows the chattering class was in Chicken Little mode. A string of pundits and politicians kept repeating the refrain, “We don’t like the ‘surge’ but if we don’t keep troops there things will go to hell in a hand-basket.” While that group thinks a conclusion can be drawn from the dire warnings of the report, Edwards seems to understand that America doesn’t find that argument compelling. Voters have moved a long way from, “Bring ’em on” and are now saying, “Bring ’em home.” Edwards has heard that message.
He also seems to have read his T.E. Lawrence. In a fascinating account of the Bremer years, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran helps explain our failure in Iraq by quoting the one Westerner who seemed to understand the Arab world. “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly,” wrote Lawrence. “It is their war, and you are to help them, not win it for them.”
Edwards has been speaking to that fundamental truth to justify his proposed withdrawal from Iraq beginning with 40,000 troops. He believes the Maliki Shia-led government, the Sunnis and the Kurds will never reach political reconciliation so long as Americans continue to be an occupying force. Speaking of the president’s plan to increase troop levels, he says all that does is “enable the continued bad behavior” and that we must “shift this responsibility to them.”
He continues that the administration has “got it exactly backwards. I don’t think there’s any chance that these … groups are going to reach any kind of reconciliation until they feel imminent responsibility.” Edwards argues for drawing down troops over the next 12-plus months, engaging our friends such as the Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians and working directly with Iran and Syria to help bring political stability to Iraq. His view is that neither Iran nor Syria wants millions of refugees streaming across its borders if all-out civil war erupts in Iraq. If we pull back and if we engage even those with whom we do not now have close relations, the Arab world will help to stabilize Iraq for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else, Edwards reasons. “But they will never participate in stabilizing a country as long as we’re the occupying force there,” he states emphatically.
And there you have a well-reasoned rationale for the policy Americans want to see implemented. Voters have been burned by faulty intelligence estimates in the past. It is unlikely they will tolerate using this latest one to justify delaying our departure from Iraq.
It is not likely that voters will delve into the details of Edwards’s plan, and they certainly won’t curl up on a freezing winter evening with T. E. Lawrence. But they do sense sensible arguments. Edwards is making them. He has a plan, not just the promise of some far-off deadline. He is clearly listening to voters who are saying enough is enough. “Haven’t they been killing each other for centuries?” one incredulous voter asked me recently. “We need to get out of their way.” That is fertile ground for Edwards’s message and it may be all he needs to run at the head of the pack.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.