Edwards stakes out his turf on Iraq policy

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) yesterday jumped back into the Iraq debate with more specifics on how the U.S. should extricate itself from the region, casting himself as the 2008 presidential contender most opposed to the war.

Edwards called on his former colleagues to go further than their non-binding criticism of President Bush’s “surge” plan, recommended a lower troop ceiling than other Democrats have and charged that the original congressional authorization no longer applies to the war.

In an Iraq debate increasingly directed by sitting members and 2008 contenders such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the 2004 vice presidential candidate, who supports a funding cutoff for the Iraq “surge,” also said he would not support such a cut-off for existing operations.

“I believe we need to end the war in Iraq, but I believe it should be done in an orderly way, a smart way, so that we increase the chances of stability as we’re leaving,” Edwards told reporters. “So I’m not for immediate and total withdrawal.”

Edwards’s latest plan for Iraq includes a readiness standard similar to one House Democrats and anti-war groups are drafting as a follow-up to this week’s non-binding resolution. Under the Edwards proposal, Congress would block troops from leaving for Iraq without adequate training and equipment.

The Carolinian has “done a good job articulating his critique,” according to Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org Washington, a leader of the anti-war coalition marshaling support for the readiness standard. Yet Matzzie said Edwards faces significant challenges in aiming to influence policy on which he cannot vote: “Most people are focused like a laser on the fight in Congress. … Democrats have this narrow hold on power that we want to leverage.”

Edwards’s strategy earned a rapid rejoinder from ex-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s (D) campaign, which interpreted the opposition to ending the war through immediate de-funding — Vilsack’s preference — as a compliment.

“Sen. Edwards bluntly acknowledged today that Tom Vilsack has the strongest plan to end the war in Iraq,” Vilsack spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement. “Capping troop levels in Iraq is nothing more than staying the course with a Bush-led military strategy that has failed our troops and failed our country.”

Clinton, Obama, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and other Democratic White House aspirants have proposed a pre-surge-level troop cap of about 130,000 soldiers to prevent Bush from deploying more combat forces. Edwards yesterday said added forces already have begun work in Iraq, diminishing the impact of such caps. He suggested a troop ceiling of 100,000.

That number is consistent with a previous vow Edwards made to withdraw immediately about 40,000 troops should he win the presidency. He also contended that the 2002 war authorization, for which he voted but has since apologized for approving, no longer covers Bush’s continued presence in Iraq.

Democrats should force Bush “to come back to Congress to seek additional authority, which I don’t think he’ll get,” Edwards said. He said that removing Saddam Hussein from power and disarming weapons of mass destruction — which Iraq did not possess — were the missions that lawmakers authorized in 2002.

By contrast, Clinton last week characterized her own vote to authorize as a granting of leverage for weapons inspectors to enter Iraq, but not an approval of preemptive conflict. In a speech last month, she proposed requiring a new congressional authorization if the Bush administration does not meet a broad set of benchmarks for stability in Iraq.

Dodd and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whom Edwards name-checked yesterday, previously had asserted that the 2002 authorization does not apply to the current mission in Iraq, as had Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), who is considering a challenge to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

“The original mission Congress authorized … is no longer operative,” Allen said during a floor speech last week.

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