If the Bush administration is under any illusions about the sorry political state of the Iraq war, yesterday’s Senate action should dispel them. A Democratic proposal for a timetable for withdrawal was beaten back 58-40, but Republicans passed their own version to force the administration to make quarterly progress reports to Congress and express its sense that 2006 should be the year when Iraqi security forces take the lead. Substantively, this might not have been particularly objectionable, but politically it was calamitous. It continued the narrative of Bush losing even his own party on Iraq–which is how the headlines have played the vote–and showed that Republicans are afraid to have a fight with Democrats even on ground that should favor them.
The Democrats are ever more explicitly becoming the party of cut-and-run. Only five Democrats voted against setting a timetable for withdrawal. Rather than stand their ground and explain why an exit from Iraq before political and security conditions allow it would be folly, Republicans felt they needed the cover of their own weasely alternative. The letter of the GOP version isn’t damaging. Congress already, after all, gets plenty of progress reports. There is a quarterly State Department report on reconstruction and the status of international cooperation; the Defense department provides a quarterly report called “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” State issues another 60-day report on strategic goals in Iraq, and progress toward meeting them; and there are many others. The secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs brief Congress in a classified setting about once a month, and the combatant commanders testify publicly on average once a quarter. As for Iraqi security forces taking over, that is already the goal around which American policy is oriented.
It is the spirit of the thing that is so damaging. It says that Democrats hold the whip hand on Iraq, and the insurgents’ most important strategic center of gravity, Washington, is in danger of being lost. After 30 years straight of warning of another Vietnam, liberals might finally have the repeat of that war they have so often warned about. “American attitudes on Iraq similar to those in Vietnam,” reads a front-page headline in Wednesday’s edition of USA Today. Although the administration has finally begun to fight back against the charge that Bush lied the U.S. into the war, it is still not on the crisis political and communications footing that the moment demands. Iraq is a little like a Katrina every day, undermining the public’s confidence in the administration’s competence and stewardship of the country. There is no substitute for actual progress in Iraq–and we still aren’t convinced that the U.S. government has the sense of urgency about achieving it that it should–but the argument for the war must be made constantly, with intelligence and rigor.
Here the administration continues to fall down. And it is here–in the political fight over Iraq–that the administration truly needs allies. Instead, like the “Sunshine Patriots” of yore, it has “Sunshine Senators” on its side. Only 13 Republicans–an honor roll including John McCain and Jon Kyl, and notably missing George Allen–voted against the GOP alternative. Most Republicans figure they are helping themselves when they, as so much of the media put it, “rebuke” Bush on the war. They are really undermining a president and a war that they are, like it or not, tremendously invested in, and hastening their own exit strategy as a majority.