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Diplomacy gets short shrift

War is "merely the continuation of politics by other means," wrote Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz.

Because George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their merry band of neo-conservatives put the political warhorse before the diplomatic cart in the months after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. occupation of Iraq remains the darkest cloud over U.S. domestic and foreign policy alike.

What's most troublesome about the campaigns of the principal presidential candidates is that, like Bush, they continue to focus more on the mechanics of war than on the foreign policy -- or lack thereof -- that got us there in the first place.

Barack Obama, for one, can't get past that he was against invading Iraq. Point well taken, but he wasn't a member of the U.S. Senate at the time, which means he wasn't subject to the pressure incumbents faced who were both skeptical of Bush's intentions toward Iraq and too cowed by voters' rage about 9-11 to oppose the infamous congressional resolution Bush used to justify invading Iraq.

Among resolution supporters were Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain. She refuses to admit her vote was a mistake; he's hell-bent on perpetuating the mistake, no matter how many more die or how much debt is piled on future generations.

Unfortunately, America can afford neither another 100 Years War nor a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq.

Despite McCain's parallel between our occupation of Iraq and our decades-long presence in Germany and South Korea, the Middle East of today bears little resemblance to either post-World War II Europe or Southeast Asia.

Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's botched attempt to disarm the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr exposed fault lines among at least three major Shiite factions -- all of which receive support from Iran to some degree.

Ironically, it was Sadr's order for his militia to stand down, coupled with the cooperation of Sunni tribal leaders who turned against al-Qaida interlopers, that has allowed the so-called surge to succeed, if ever so shakily.

McCain embarrassed himself by mistaking Sunni for Shiite, but a more serious defect is his unwavering support of Bush's pursuit of a military solution to problems that are, at root, secular and political. The president continues to talk about final victory over terrorists as if the enemies were well-delineated bad guys, wearing jackboots and lapel swastikas, but, as recent developments on the ground have shown, the enemy varies, depending on who's speaking and on what day. In any case, it's clear most of the culprits are homegrown -- not foreign terrorists.

At the same time, posthaste withdrawal of U.S. troops could lead to chaos and even greater U.S. casualties. Both Obama and Clinton should say less about how soon they will extract troops and more about how, through diplomacy, they intend to help Iraq reach a point of stabilization so we can pull out most troops.

In all likelihood, that will mean keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for a long time, as part of a larger international peacekeeping mission. Yes, that is what McCain meant when he compared Iraq with South Korea.

What no candidate has stressed sufficiently is that stability in Iraq will require brokering peace with major players in the region, including Iran and Syria.

Another reason the Democrats need to tone down the get-out-now rhetoric is that the next president likely will have to commit more, not fewer, troops to Afghanistan, a very different kettle of fish.

In recent days, President Bush has been lobbying NATO allies to enhance their forces in that country; they might be reluctant to do so if they think the next president of the United States will cut and run. That is why all the candidates should be explaining to voters why security in Afghanistan is both a moral responsibility of the U.S. and vital to stability in Pakistan.

For all its terrible consequences, war is a rather straightforward enterprise: Win or lose, kill or be killed. In contrast, diplomacy is a business of nuances, requiring patience, understanding of complex issues and unwavering commitment to peace.

Diplomacy doesn't easily lend itself to sound bites, which is why we hear so little about it.

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