Options for withdrawal
There are four key elements to a political strategy for diminishing the violent resistance in Iraq. First, the Bush Administration must declare that the U.S. will not seek permanent military bases in Iraq. Second, we should declare some sort of time frame (but not a rigid deadline) by which we think we can withdraw militarily—if Iraqi groups that are supporting or tolerating the violence will instead help build the new political order. Third, we need to talk directly to the (largely Sunni) political groups connected to the insurgency, some of which have been seeking to talk to the U.S. for almost two years. Fourth, we need an honest broker to help mediate these discussions and build confidence in the process; this might be a small international contact group including representatives from the United Nations and one or two of the European embassies in Baghdad.
I fully support all these options, but I wonder whether the political will exists for Democrats to get fully behind it. Let's take each bullet point in turn:
1. This is really a no-brainer. In fact, I would say that the issue of permanent bases in Iraq is one of the most under-reported aspects of Bush's Middle-East policy. I have no numbers on this, but it wouldn't surprise me if 90% of Americans don't even know that this is part of the Bush plan. The presence of American troops in Iraq is an irritant to the process of resolving the Iraq crisis. The presence of permanent bases turns that irritant into a full blown infection. There is no legitimate argument for these permanent basis that does not include the threat of future pre-emptive military action in the region. They are a gun held to the head of every leader in the Islamic world. Any reasonable alternative Middle East policy must begin with the declaration that America will NOT pursue permanent basing in Iraq.
2. Matthew Yglesias is correct that "time frame" vs. "rigid deadline" is a distinction without much difference. It is essentially a euphamism to avoid some of the objections to the idea of a "rigid deadline". But hey, if it works then I'm all for it. Just be prepared for critics to hammer on this point and try not to sound to weasily about it.
3. Negotations with elements of the isurgency holds the greatest political danger for anyone who suggests it. The Rovian talking point springs immediately to mind: "We must not negotiate with terrorists!" It doesn't matter that in the world of realpolitik, not all insurgencies lie on the same spot of the terrorist scale. The temptation for Republicans to use this to hammer Democrats will be irresistable. But we must remember our history: past settlements of similar conflicts have always relied on some form of negotiation with elements of the other side (think Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army). It may be "good politics" to decry this, especially in a close race, but it is bad national security policy. Especially when the "enemy" is to elusive for you to simply wipe out with a few well placed bombs.
This will be the most difficult argument for any Democrat to make because most of them are reflexively inclined to avoid ANY appearance of appeasment. But they should keep this in mind: many a conservative foreign policy analyst has made the argument that it was necessary to work with some "really nasty people" in order to win the Cold War. Why couldn't the same case be made for winning the War on Terror?
4. Third party mediation is essential in resolving this conflict because America simply doesn't have the credibility to negotiate. There is no basis for the Iraqis to take anything we promise on good faith. But again, this is a political hot button because the Republicans have done such a good job of painting any use of outside parties (the UN, Nato, etc.) as some kind of weakness (could have fooled Bush Sr.).
Conclusion: the last two points will be the most difficult, politically, for any Democratic leader to get behind. That doesn't mean they shouldn't get behind them. But they should be prepared for a shitstorm in response. They will need to be able to refute the arguments and throw them back in the oppositions face when they are made.