PORTSMOUTH — The Iraq war may be, said Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, President "George Bush's mess." But if this diagnosis is correct, as most Democrats and a growing number of Republicans believe, recovering from this historical quagmire will require a unique combination of political skill, vision and significant international cooperation.
During his appearance Wednesday at the Seacoast Media Group forum on Iraq, Edwards put himself forward as precisely the candidate who can end the war, deal best with unforeseen consequences and revitalize American foreign policy for years to come — including the "out there" notion of stopping U.S. nuclear weapon development while leading the way toward eliminating those weapons globally.
The former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee is, if nothing else, ambitious and idealistic in his notions about the potential power of American leadership in gaining international cooperation to help deal with a wide range of crisis-level issues, which he sees as interconnected. He sees a need for help to stabilize Iraq and sway younger generations of Muslims in the Middle East, to leading the global climate agenda and providing primary education to hundreds of millions in Africa and elsewhere.
One of the more revealing moments in the forum — and one instructive about the stark choices facing the country and the next president — came when a young girl asked Edwards how we could help the children in Iraq, many of whom live in constant danger.
Edwards' policy-laden answer, much of which must have gone over the head of the young girl, boiled down to this: It's up to the Iraqis, who happen to be on the verge of a major civil war.
It's unknown how fast even Edwards — like all of the Democratic candidates advocating various levels of withdrawal — can disengage from Iraq or deal bluntly with issues such as the massive privatization of our foreign policy infrastructure.
"Bad things can happen, no matter what," Edwards said about the need to get American troops out and deal with potential consequences later. "No one can predict the future."
Edwards explained again at the forum that he "was wrong" to vote for the war in 2002 and has learned from those painful lessons of deferring to presidential persuasion. He has criticized Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the inconsistency of the Iraq war policies and votes in the Senate, but it remains to be seen whether being wrong in 2002 and learning a lasting lesson will matter to Democratic primary voters.