Politics & Policy

Voting the War

Thoughts for early caucus and primary voters.

The question for Americans at the start of 2008 is not — after over four years and a great deal of American blood and treasure — whether we should leave Iraq (all agree that we should), but when and under what conditions. In this regard, consistency of belief reveals a lot, since it suggests that views are formed on principles rather than the prevailing, and constantly shifting, majority impression.

Senator Hillary Clinton voted for authorizing the war, then, as the costs mounted, became a critic — but not to such a degree that she could not still hedge should things still turn around. The result is that we now have a pro-war Clinton, a “suspension of disbelief” Clinton, and a quiet Clinton on the war, much in the way Bill Clinton initially supported the war, then proclaimed he had been against it from the beginning. But are there any core beliefs here about the wisdom or folly of removing Saddam and trying to foster consensual government in his place-other than ‘if it is going well, I’m for it; if not, I’m against it-for now at least’? We should remember that one of the supposedly most astute politicians of our age, Hillary Clinton, gratuitously insulted with the “suspicion of disbelief” cast-off line, a commanding general who was on his way to becoming a genuine American hero. Not smart at all.

Sen. Obama is believable when he states he was against Iraq from the beginning and still is, though we can’t ascertain that fact, given he wasn’t yet elected a senator at the critical moment of authorization. Sen. Edwards was for the war, and gave eloquent speeches why so, then moved hard left and damned the war and any who supported it — and now is relatively quiet on Iraq (other than wanting all U.S. troops out within 10 months) since his nearly acquired William Jennings Bryan populism seems for now to bring more dividends.

It is hard to determine much difference in the positions of the leading Republican candidates — the removal of Saddam was necessary, the three-week war was well run, the four-year occupation was marred by mistakes (made by someone else), and the surge has helped bring stability – one that requires a careful American drawdown, predicated by facts on the ground in Iraq. Much of this is gleaned through assertion since few of the candidates, excepting McCain, were in a position to go on record for or against the surge and staying the course. Thompson and Giuliani made the most effort to tie their support for the war to larger geostrategic anti-terrorism strategies.

There is a sort of Orwellian quality, however, in the Republican candidates’ positions on the war: all seem to support the present Bush course but can’t quite name the President, given his 36% favorable rating in the polls. The result is that we hear of little substantive difference from the present strategy, but frequent protestations about past mistakes — that seem intended as necessary cover for de facto associating oneself with George Bush’s Iraq.

Where does all that leave us? Gen. Petraeus and the success in Anbar have radically changed the politics of the war in Iraq. Six months ago, we were supposed to have envisioned Iowa as an Iraqi battleground, where Middle American said ‘no’ to war, and those candidates with the most anti-war fides found traction.

But this past monthly period in Iraq was the least costly to America in terms of wounded and dead in Iraq, and the media is reduced to running back-page stories about poor graveyard workers with too little work, or supposedly lazy Iraqis who aren’t cleaning up debris in prompt fashion. As the violent trends decrease, the positive ones — power, oil revenue, GDP, returning refugees, security forces — increase. The result is that we are in one-year, election-cycle holding period of “What’s next?”

The voters have lately turned a deaf ear to anti-war activists; Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, and Code Pink are mostly receding as bad memories. Instead, the public is probably willing to continue to support a Petraeus-like counter-insurgency solution as long as the violence steadily abates and they can begin to see incremental withdrawals of American troops, the fact of such, rather than the actual numbers, being initially what matters.

Bottom line: for now Iraq per se is not a major issue in the primaries, at least to the degree it is seen as something separate from Afghanistan and the general war against Islamic terrorism. Those on the anti-war side who harp that it is will sound strident, given public support for Gen. Petraeus and good news from the front. There are subtle differences among the Republican candidates, both in their past statements and positions and their recommendations; but for now they are not of much significance, at least for the immediate primaries.

What to look for? It depends on the pulse of the battlefield: Continued good news, makes the war less and less of an issue, especially if some troops are withdrawn either late summer or early next autumn.

The final irony? No candidate apparently argues that someone did something right to have prevented another 9/11-like attack for over six years, removed two dictatorships, fostered the continued, stubborn presence of democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, helped change the Middle East dynamic from Lebanon to Libya, and at present won friendship and support from key countries as diverse as France, Germany, and India.

– Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

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