We can learn a lot about ourselves from the looking glass of Iraq.
American losses in November were 36 dead — the lowest of any November of the war. Once violent places like Fallujah and Ramadi are now quiet. Whatever is happening in Iraq — reasonable people can differ over the prognosis — all agree that the violence is abating at an astonishing rate.
Oil revenues are at all-time high with $98-a-barrel oil. The Sunni insurgency is not just tired, but tired of losing to the American military and being exploited by al-Qaeda in the bargain. Since bad news alone is news from Iraq, there is now very little about the war on our front pages or the evening network lead-ins.
But as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.) presciently warned last July, such good news could present a “problem” for antiwar Democrats. And now it has.
They invested in the failure of the surge, having successfully tapped into widespread public unhappiness over the absence of prior clear-cut victory. Some change in their position is now on the horizon and it won’t be the first time Democrats have had to adjust en masse.
Most in the party voted in October 2002 to authorize George Bush to remove Saddam Hussein. Why exactly did the present group of antiwar Democrats line up for the war? Was it just legitimate fears of weapons of mass destruction, or the other twenty-some congressional writs they passed as casus belli and haven’t changed a bit?
Perhaps — but they were also still giddy over the unexpected seven-week defeat of the Taliban, and the inspired efforts to fashion an Interim Transitional Administration, with the suave Hamid Karzai as its president.
Because we had already defeated Saddam in 1991, and since pundits had proclaimed that a secular Iraq would be more malleable to reconstruction than a primordial Afghanistan of warlords, Democrats signed on for another war that might prove even easier to wage and quicker to win. Support for an easy victory in Iraq would only further confirm their reputation of being tough on national security in a post-9/11 world.
When — in the manner of Sen. Clinton — they warned that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was connected to al-Qaeda, they were only reiterating the standard Bill Clinton line throughout much of the 1990s. Indeed, most Democrats saw George Bush’s post-9/11 focus on the dangers of Baathist Iraq as simply the natural escalation from Clinton’s own policy of occasional bombings, embargos, and no-fly zones.
But as the post-Saddam elections lined up — 2004, 2006, 2008 — and the reconstruction of Iraq proved bloodier than anticipated, the politics changed.
The Democrats became the antiwar party. Prominent pro-war pundits flipped and cursed the effort. Journalistic exposés were published in serial fashion. Michael Moore reigned supreme. And disillusioned former administration officials and generals wrote supposedly brilliant opeds about how the war was lost, and how and why Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz — fill in the blanks — had not listened to their own inspired advice about reconstruction. It was time to pile on. Almost all Democrats did.
Still, there were two caveats here. One, what to do about those embarrassing speeches on October 11 and 12, 2002, given by the likes of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid?
The answer? Mostly ignore the past (‘that was then, this is now’). Or claim they were misled by the intelligence. Or at least remove that albatross by insisting that they never really expected a reckless George Bush to take them up on their sober and judicious authorization.
The second problem was the nature of the growing antiwar mood in the country that after the pullback from Fallujah in April 2004 became frenetic. Democrats rashly fanned this national wildfire. By 2006 the conflagration had finally led to their return to power in Congress.
Unfortunately, many Democrats saw the change-of-heart in the electorate as a blanket endorsement of their own alternate universe. But it wasn’t necessarily so. The voters were not necessarily interested in new ties with terrorist Syria, restoring diplomacy with Iran, gay marriage, abortion, minority-identity politics, new spending programs, open borders, closing down Guantanamo, an end to wiretaps of suspected terrorists, or the repeal of the Patriot Act.
The people were mad at the war not because they felt it was amoral or unsound policy, or because they hated George Bush, or because they wished liberals instead to end it in defeat — but simply because they felt frustrated that we either were not winning, or not winning at a cost in blood and treasure that was worth the effort.
That Pattonesque national mood (“America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser”) is not quite entirely gone, and was entirely misunderstood by most Democrats. Somehow instead they saw their new popularity as connected to the appeal of their politics rather than their shared anger at the mismanagement of the war.