PHILADELPHIA (CNN) – The future of troops in Iraq, and the future of a potential U.S. showdown with Iran dominated much of Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate - with frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s votes at the center.
Even with Iran a growing issue on the campaign trail in recent weeks, one of the night’s sharper exchanges focused on how to proceed in Iraq.
Clinton and challenger John Edwards clashed over the next step for U.S. troops and their role.
Edwards argued, “If you believe that combat missions should be continued in Iraq over the long term, if you believe that combat troops should remain stationed in Iraq, and if you believe there should be no actual timetable for withdrawal, then Senator Clinton is your candidate.
"I don't. I think that we need to end combat missions; we need to get combat troops out of Iraq. As president of the United States, I will do that. I think it's a requirement of leadership, as president. And I will do it in my first year in office: combat missions ended, combat troops out of Iraq, period."
Clinton claimed Edwards misstated her position, saying any combat role would only in pursuit of terrorists. “My understanding is that we had the same agreement - most of us on this stage - that we would bring out combat troops but we would pursue a mission against al Qaeda in Iraq if they remained a threat. Now, I don't know how you pursue al Qaeda without engaging them in combat. So I think we're having a semantic difference here. I think we should get as many of the combat troops out as quickly as possible.”
While Edwards and Senator Barack Obama criticized Clinton’s vote authorizing the war in Iraq, the debate Tuesday dealt heavily with a new vote – her support of the resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Council a terrorist organization. Clinton defended her stand on Iran saying, “I am not in favor of this rush for war, but I'm also not in favor of doing nothing. Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. And the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is in the forefront of that, as they are in the sponsorship of terrorism.”
Directly confronting her critics , “So some may want a false choice between rushing to war, which is the way the Republicans sound - it's not even a question of whether, it's a question of when and what weapons to use - and doing nothing. I prefer vigorous diplomacy. And I happen to think economic sanctions are part of vigorous diplomacy. “
Obama, who did not vote on the resolution, criticized it as premature. He said, “this kind of resolution does not send the right signal to the region. It doesn't send the right signal to our allies or our enemies. And, as a consequence, I think over the long term, it weakens our capacity to influence Iran. Now, there may come a point where those measures have been exhausted and Iran is on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapon, where we have to consider other options. But we shouldn't talk about those options now, when we haven't even tried what would be a much more effective approach.”
Edwards said the resolution takes the wrong approach to limiting the administration’s approach to Iran. “I just listened to what Senator Clinton said and she said she wanted to maximize pressure on the Bush administration. So the way to do that is to vote yes on a resolution that looks like it was written, literally, by the neo-cons. I mean, has anyone read this thing? I mean, it literally gave Bush and Cheney exactly what they wanted”, he said.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich said backers of the resolution are opening the door for war with Iran. He said, “There's no basis for it whatsoever. But we have to realize, Tim, that we have a number of enablers who happen to be Democrats who have said over the last year, with respect to Iran, all options are on the table. And when you say all options are on the table, you are licensing President Bush.”
The candidates outlined approaches towards Iran.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson advocated negotiations with Iran without conditions, saying the world “cannot permit
Iran to use nuclear weapons. And I do believe what you do is Ahmadinejad - it's very difficult to deal with him. But there are moderate elements in Iraq. There are moderate clerics. There's students. There's a business community. And I believe that we can achieve a compromise on the nuclear issue. In exchange for them having a nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear power, they don't develop nuclear weapons - carrot and sticks, diplomatic initiatives, economic incentives. The problem is we saber-rattle. And this resolution in the Senate saber-rattles.”
Senator Joe Biden said that it was important Iran not distract from other pressing issues. He said, “I will do all in my power to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but I will never take my eye off the ball. What is the greatest threat to the United States of America: 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Tehran or an out-of-control Pakistan? It's not close.”
Senator Chris Dodd said the situations amplify the need for foreign policy experience. He said the key issue for voters is “which of us here brings the background, the experience, the ability to make a difference on these issues, including the question of Iran.”
–CNN Political Desk Managing Editor Steve Brusk