Politics & Policy

Hedging on Iraq

The Democrats prepare for anything, and advocate nothing.

For all the talk of cutting off funds, redeployment, and pulling out, the new Democratic Congress will, at least for now, probably do nothing except speak impassioned words and make implicit threats. Here’s why.

First, they have to digest what they have swallowed. Democratic critics had previously framed their opposition to the war in terms of a disastrous tenure of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld; a culpable indifference to the status quo in Baghdad and at Centcom; a failure to listen to the more intellectual generals such as David Petraeus; the “too few troops” mantra; and the lionization of Gens. Shinseki, Zinni, and other shunned military critics.

But now Abizaid, Casey, Khalilzad, and Rumsfeld are all absent — or about to be — from direct involvement in the war. The supposed villain cast of Cobra II and Fiasco has exited, and the purported good guys have entered. David Petraeus will, de facto, be in charge, not just in the strictly military sense, but, given the press and politics of the war, spiritually as well — in the manner that Grant by late summer 1864 had become symbolic of the entire Union military effort that was his to win or lose. Many of those officers involved in the “revolt of the generals” have now largely supported the surge — something Democrats themselves had inadvertently apparently called for when they serially lamented there were too few troops to win in Iraq.

All the old targets of the Democrats are no more, and it will take time for them to re-adjust the crosshairs to aim at men and policies that they have heretofore viewed sympathetically.

Second, there is also a new twist to the Democratic criticism, evident in their increasing attacks on the Iraqi government in general and on Prime Minister Maliki in particular. The Michael Moore/Cindy Sheehan/Code Pink rants are no longer to be echoed by bellowing Sens. Durbin, Kennedy, or Kerry, saying in effect that American troops at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or on patrol in Iraq are somehow akin to Hitler, Pol Pot, terrorists, or Saddam Hussein. Instead, in the new liberal brief, we are dying for incompetent Iraqi sectarians who can’t even conduct a decent execution.

That is, we are getting the Sen. Webb brand of critique of Iraq, given in terms of the national interest. Democrats seem to be saying that the Iraqis aren’t worth another American life, and that the hope of democracy over there was misplaced, making futile the rare opportunity offered by American blood and treasure.

It matters little whether this is factually correct; their only concern is the immediate political ramifications of such a “blame ’em” stance. In terms of the effect on military operations, Bush is, in a weird way, sometimes being attacked from his right by the Left — that the Iraqis are tying our hands, or not doing their own part, or incapable of enlightened government.

Not only will the administration bring pressure on Maliki by playing the sympathetic good cop to the Democrats’ bad, but also in the process it will ironically be given, for a time, more leeway to inflict damage on the jihadists. If the old liberal mantra was Abu Ghraib ad nauseam, the new one is that the treacherous Iraqis are releasing those killers that our brave soldiers arrest. While the Democrats may have meant to attack our present tactics in terms of naiveté and incompetence, the charge often translates as insufficient force applied — giving Bush a window to do more, not less.

Third, for all the gloom about Iraq, it remains volatile. We have gone from wild exultation in April 2003 when Saddam’s statue fell, to depression in 2004 during the pullback from Fallujah, to optimism at the elections and the Cedar Revolution in the spring of 2005, to gloom over the sectarian killing. Of course, the politics and punditry have adjusted accordingly.

Now all agree that the surge is not merely an increase of a few thousand troops, but a last effort to bring in new tactics and personnel to win or lose the war in 2007. Given the 2008 election to come, Democrats are crafting the necessary holding position for the next few months, which will allow them to readjust their past records either to defeat or to victory — something difficult to achieve should they now vote to cut off funds before the verdict is in.

Fourth, there is the “what next?” dilemma. It is fine for Democrats to talk of “redeployment” out of Iraq, “engagement” with Syria and Iran, more soft power, Europeans and the United Nations, organizing “regional interests,” etc. — until one realizes that we did mostly just that for most of the 1990s.

And? We got Syrian absorption of Lebanon, Afghanistan as an al Qaeda base, a Libyan WMD program, worldwide serial terrorist attacks, Oslo, a Pakistani bomb, a full-bore Iranian nuclear program, Oil-for-Food — and 9/11. If one doubts any of this, just reflect on why the Democrats have not offered any specific alternative plans. And when pressed, they usually talk only of “talking” and thereby bring embarrassment to even their liberal questioners.

So, privately, some sober Democrats realize that the use of force in the present was a reaction to the frustrations of the past. For all the slurs against the neocons, it could be wise to stay mum, and see whether the stabilization of Afghanistan and Iraq might well, in fact, still provide the United States with options unavailable in the past. It could be even wiser to let Bush take the heat for the ordeal in Iraq, and the slanders against democratization, and then, if it all finally succeeds, to huff, snort, nit-pick about the messy details — and then take advantage of the favorable outcome.

In contrast to the complex daily Democratic triangulation, the Republican position has solidified and can’t really be further nuanced. More troops, Secretary Rumsfeld, new tactics — these are no longer issues between a Sen. McCain and the administration. And the other front-runners likewise support the current effort, and its success or failure will help determine their own particular fates.

We are in a rare period in American political history, in which the battlefield alone will determine the next election, perhaps not seen since 1864. The economy, scandal, social issues, domestic spending, jobs, all these usual criteria and more pale in comparison to what happens in Iraq, where a few thousand brave American soldiers will determine our collective future.

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