Politics & Policy

The Road Most Traveled

Leaderless Dems on Iraq.

There are three possible paths in Iraq, and it is now clear which one the Democrat leadership prefers.

I. Declare Victory and Leave

The first is to leave now, the logical consequence of the antiwar rhetoric of the last four years. But other than a Ted Kennedy, few important Democratic players wish to take the risk that revisionists in a few years, as in Vietnam, will point out the U.S. was close to victory when funding for the troops was cut off and wide-scale slaughter of reformers ensued, with jihadists on the rise for the next decade.

This position would best follow from much of the Democratic speech making — and so won’t be immediately adopted.

II. No Substitute for Victory

The second is to win, victory being defined as staying on to stabilize the government to ensure its political and economic reforms are not destroyed by terrorists and militias. This requires enduring bad news, more casualties, adopting new strategies, surging, new tactics, etc. — in other words, all the sorts of necessary adaptations that a Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, Truman, Nixon et al. did in the face of fierce criticism. This is now, and always was, the George Bush position, who finds his base of support among even once diehard conservatives shrinking, reminiscent of beleaguered presidents in 1864, 1942, 1951, and 1969.

III. The Paperless Trail

The third is to do nothing at least for now, and, above all, leave no paper trail: Neither get out nor get more in, but wait and adopt rhetoric to the pulse of the battlefield, hedging bets and relating that good news is due to Democratic pressure, bad because of ignoring sober advice.

If Iraq worsens and the administration tells Maliki & co. “so long,” then the Democrats can crow that they finally prevailed; if things improve, and troops can begin to come home, it was only due to the pressure and scrutiny of a Harry Reid or Barbara Boxer.

The only requisite is to ensure that criticism remains untethered to any particular proposal: e.g., don’t call for more troops since there might be an eventual surge; don’t praise to the skies a David Petraeus since he might well take over operations. To paraphrase Sen. Reid, it is not the domain of the Senate to set policy. That is, instead it is only to criticize George Bush’s war, offer no real alternatives, take credit for success, allot blame for errors to others, and, above, watch daily the poll numbers. Few want to repeat the mistake of October 2002 that still haunts Democrats: So don’t do anything silly like authorizing the war against Saddam by throwing in 23 counts, then claiming to be misled on those few concerning WMDs.

What does this mean?

The battlefield will now determine everything. Either there will be a Sherman, a 1918 summer offensive, an Eisenhower, a Ridgeway, or an Abrams to offer hope to a weary public, or the Democrats very soon will, at the key moment of poll meltdown, en masse stampede from position III to I.

I can’t think of any recent American commander who will have to carry more of an unfair burden than the gifted Gen. Petraeus who now will or will not settle things in Baghdad — and thereby even more back home as well. In a metaphorical sense, given that securing Baghdad is a far different postmodern enterprise in an unconventional war, he will either take Atlanta and win the war, or fail and we will watch the McClellanists do their best to tell us that American failure was some sort of success.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.

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