Four years ago, Saddam Hussein was captured. Dem presidential front runner Howard Dean said "the capture of Saddam has not made America safer." Soon after, he was roundly attacked by his Dem rivals, and other Beltway Dems sought to undermine Dean in the New York Times (link via Left Coaster), fearful that the Dean nomination -- in the face of such great success in Iraq -- would make the party look soft and weak.
Now, the NY Times is floating (apparently off-the-record) concerns that the military gains in Iraq will make things complicated for a Dem nominee critical of the occupation.
Dems aren't all of sudden sounding like Republicans on the occupation. To the extent they are accepting claims of military successes, they are still stressing that such gains don't mean much if there's no political success reconciling Iraq's various factions.
But they could sharpen that message, and more clearly root it in broader foreign policy principles.
On its face, just criticizing the lack of political progress can seem like nitpicking, and stubbornly refusing to accept any sort of progress.
However, if it is well understood that Democratic foreign policy is based on support for credible democracy -- not on propping up illegitimate governments through aid to dictators (like in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) or permanent occupation (like in Iraq) -- it will be easier to respond to the ebbs and flows of the civil war.
It doesn't matter if an increase in the size of the occupation has contributed to a brief decline in the number of attacks, just as it didn't matter when Saddam was captured.
If permanent occupation is a fundamentally flawed goal, reconciliation will remain impossible, and destabilization and violence will continue to percolate.
In 2003, Dean wasn't shifting his foreign policy views with the daily twist and turns of news. He took the long view and was vindicated in the end. Today's Dems should heed the lesson.
Further, as the Bush Administration and its Iraqi clients start to talk more openly about a permanent presence, Dems have a fresh opportunity to crystallize the foreign policy choice before us.
The Dodd campaign was first in responding to Bush's move to codify permanent bases in a statement.
That's fine. But statements won't be enough to make the issue the basis for reframing the Iraq debate and broader foreign policy discussion.
Candidates should make it a central issue to repeatedly return to when discussing alternatives.
If one candidate does that, the person will have done much to earn your vote.
If several do that, we can start reshaping the foreign policy debate before the nominees are chosen.