WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats running for U.S. president have promised to pull troops from Iraq, but some analysts and defense officials question whether either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would fulfill that pledge if elected.
Certainly, the U.S. military will comply with any policy adopted by the next commander-in-chief, including a full-scale withdrawal from Iraq, officers say.
But some officials and policy analysts say it is difficult to see Obama or Clinton, if elected, ordering a swift pull-out once presented with the complexity of the security and political situation in Iraq and the responsibility for maintaining relationships in the region.
Obama, an Illinois senator who leads in the number of delegates needed to secure the Democratic nomination, has repeatedly promised not just to withdraw but to have all troops out of Iraq within 16 months.
To do that, the Pentagon would have to pull one to two brigades — roughly 3,500 to 7,000 troops — out each month.
That could be done, but military officers warn that if the president expects an orderly withdrawal, the pace must be dictated by security conditions that allow the military to get its soldiers and equipment out safely. That could take years.
New York Sen. Clinton has been less specific, promising only that troop cuts could start within 60 days of taking office and offering no deadline for full withdrawal.
That could give her room to make decisions based on current conditions in Iraq, meaning the pursuit of a policy that might fall in line with President George W. Bush’s current plan of pulling troops out as warranted by security gains.
“She’s been a little more careful,” said Michael O’Hanlon, national security policy expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “She still obviously wants out and she obviously isn’t happy with the war and she wants to make a distinction with Bush but I see a little more flexibility on her account.”
“Obama’s the one who’s in more trouble on this,” he said.
Candidates have a tradition of revisiting campaign promises once they are in office, and security officials and analysts close to the Pentagon say it is easy to see Obama or Clinton ordering a review of Iraq policy and then leaving troops there.
In fact, one of Obama’s former policy advisers, Samantha Power, said Obama would weigh security conditions in Iraq in implementing a withdrawal.
She told a BBC interviewer Obama “will of course not rely upon some plan that he’s crafted as a presidential candidate or U.S. senator,” and he would take into account the advice of generals on the ground.
“A lot of people think that Obama is locked in. I don’t think he is,” said Daniel Byman, security analyst at Georgetown University.
The next administration could, for example, decide that only troops involved in counterterrorism missions or those linked to training Iraqi soldiers would stay in Iraq. That could mean tens of thousands of troops and all of the personnel who support them might remain.
“There’s a lot of ways you can have troops out and not have them out depending on how you define things,” Byman said. “There’s a definitional ambiguity.”
Brian Katulis, analyst with Washington-based liberal policy group the Center for American Progress, rejected a suggestion that Democrats would abandon withdrawal promises once in office.
Katulis said the strain on the U.S. military and a need to dedicate more resources to global counterterrorism will force the next president to pull out of Iraq.
“There is a clear strategic choice being offered” by Democrats, he said.
“On the other side of the aisle, you’ve got conservatives who simply just say let’s continue with more of the same.”
The Republican nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, has backed Bush’s war policy and wants troops to stay until Iraq is more stable.
The United States has 158,000 troops in Iraq and plans to have five combat brigades out by July. That should bring the number of combat troops in the war zone back to the level held before a “surge” of force last year.
The top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is expected to tell Congress the military will halt withdrawals after July to evaluate security conditions. That could leave about 140,000 troops in Iraq when the next president takes office.
All three candidates will question Petraeus directly during hearings this week.
Editing by David Alexander and Jackie Frank