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Clark Sways Some on Iraq Strategy

After hearing a presentation from retired Gen. Wesley Clark on Tuesday night, a bloc of House Democrats who have been calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq admitted Clark’s comments are prompting them to take a new look at the issue.

Clark met privately with the members of the Out of Iraq Caucus to give them his perspective on the ongoing conflict and offer advice on how Democrats should frame their arguments for bringing troops home. His call: Avoid specific timelines for withdrawal and focus instead on calling for and developing strategies for success that rely not on the military, but on diplomacy.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who formed the Out of Iraq Caucus, said Clark gave the group “good recommendations” about how to move forward in talking about bringing an end to the war and developing a strategy to bring home U.S. forces. The Out of Iraq Caucus is developing a strategic plan on the matter to be released in the coming months.

“I think he gave us some more to think about, and more to think about in this whole area of diplomacy,” she said. “He gave us good recommendations that we can form a consensus around.”

“What he did was refocus me, and all of us, in coming up with a plan for diplomacy,” Waters added. “We decided we would get together and talk about and formulate a plan based on what he told us to lead this country and pressure this administration on the diplomatic issues that it hasn’t been involved in.”

The Out of Iraq Caucus is a band of about 50 liberal Democrats dedicated to increasing pressure in the White House to end the Iraqi conflict and bring U.S. troops home. The caucus formed in June to offer a divided party a more forceful voice on the issue.

Clark, a one-time Democratic presidential hopeful, has become a familiar face on military strategy and message for a party that continues to be split on the U.S. role in the region. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other leaders already have adopted Clark’s message of calling for a success strategy and steering away from timelines as they try to unify their Caucus on the issue.

A Clark ally, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the former general has “become the go-to guy for Congressional Democrats on national security and the war in Iraq.”

This source said Clark’s experience and familiarity with Iraq puts him in a unique position to lend advice to the Democrats — even the most liberal in the party. He advises without lecturing and has the experience and credibility to back up his ideas, this source said.

“In that role, he walks it like he talks it,” this source said. “He’s talking to all sides in trying to unify Democrats on at least developing a plan as an alternative to the befuddlement that is the administration’s policy.”

The session comes at a time when many left-leaning members of the Democratic Caucus believe their House leaders have been too quiet on the topic of Iraq, and have not made enough of an issue of the failures of the Bush administration’s policies nor have they gone far enough to pressure the White House to come up with an exit plan.

“The Democratic leadership is not vocal enough,” Waters said.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who is helping lead that charge, said “we broke the silence” and there is “no question in anybody’s mind that we have to discuss what is going to happen in Iraq. We have to put together a plan.”

Woolsey missed Clark’s presentation Tuesday, but organized an ad hoc hearing last week with national security experts on ways to end the war and will be among the participants at this weekend’s anti-war rally in Washington. She said those experts join Clark in advising that diplomacy be atop any exit plan.

“Diplomacy is the No. 1 tool that our administration doesn’t know how to use at all,” she said.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus and leading voice among Democrats urging a troop withdrawal, said Clark “made a lot of sense,” and confirmed what many have long believed — that this war “did not need to be fought.”

Lee said that while there is a “broad spectrum” of views among Democrats on the issue, most all agree with Clark that diplomacy must be part of any plan to exit the region. She said Clark plays an important role in the effort because of “his background and his experience, he has a clear vision of how we got into this and how to get out.”

“Members of the Out of Iraq Caucus have a variety of opinions and views, that’s why the organization was brought together,” Lee said. “But everyone wants out of Iraq.”

Lee is one of 59 Members who have signed onto a bill calling for President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by October 2006. Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and Walter Jones Jr.(R-N.C.) are the original co-sponsors of the measure.

Waters said that while some in the caucus want an immediate withdrawal, the Out of Iraq effort is inclined to follow the lead of Clark and present a plan relying heavily on diplomatic means for concluding the engagement.

“I have tried to organize people around the idea that the war has to stop without taking sides and getting into timelines,” she said. “Some want it by December, others by next year. I think we are very smart in [not setting a timeline] doing that. If we forge a strategic plan around diplomacy we haven’t created any enemies and we can form a consensus.”

The Out of Iraq Caucus invited Clark as part of its ongoing effort to get more information about the war and come up with a proposal. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member on Armed Services, Iraqi veteran Army Sgt. John Bruhns and University of Chicago professor Robert Pape, an expert on suicide terrorism, also have come before the group.

Clark, who is still nursing his own political ambitions, has argued that while he doesn’t approve of the policies in Iraq, nor does he believe the war was well advised, the country cannot walk away. He also argues that there is no military end to the effort, rather that a diplomatic one involving other nations must be employed.

Waters said Clark had “such an impact” because he is “well-respected and knows so much about the military and how it operates and what is going on.”

“He shared with us that he just never agreed with the war in Iraq and thinks we need to provide more leadership to get us out of Iraq, but we can’t just do it right now. We can’t just walk away.”

Waters added that Clark made clear to Members that leaving now would only encourage terrorism in the region and lead to civil unrest in the country.

“He thinks it’s very important to understand that the terrorists would like nothing better than to have us exit right now and then the terrorists would move faster to take over and create this civil war,” she said.