Democrats figured that the August recess would give them plenty of opportunity to raise the heat on Republicans to force a withdrawal date from Iraq. They could return to their home districts, stoke some demonstrations, and return with new momentum after Labor Day to push for retreat. Unfortunately, events have intervened, and now Democrats have to regroup to avoid looking like defeatists while the military effort has started producing successes:
Democratic leaders in Congress had planned to use August recess to raise the heat on Republicans to break with President Bush on the Iraq war. Instead, Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front, increasingly focusing their criticisms on what those military gains have not achieved: reconciliation among Iraq's diverse political factions.
And now the Democrats, along with wavering Republicans, will face an advertising blitz from Bush supporters determined to remain on offense. A new pressure group, Freedom's Watch, will unveil a month-long, $15 million television, radio and grass-roots campaign today designed to shore up support for Bush's policies before the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, lays out a White House assessment of the war's progress. The first installment of Petraeus's testimony is scheduled to be delivered before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a fact both the administration and congressional Democrats say is simply a scheduling coincidence.
The leading Democratic candidates for the White House have fallen into line with the campaign to praise military progress while excoriating Iraqi leaders for their unwillingness to reach political accommodations that could end the sectarian warfare.
The Democrats have been outmanuevered again on Iraq. Earlier this year, they took 108 days to come up with a funding formula that wouldn't get vetoed by the Bush administration, thinking that they could dictate terms to the White House. They found out, as the Republicans did in 1995, that Presidents are never irrelevant. He played "chicken" better than the Democrats, who swerved rather than allowing funds to run out on the troops, and gave Bush what he wanted in May.
It looks like September will bring more swerving. Even leading Democrats acknowledge that Petraeus has produced some stunning successes in Anbar and Diyala. Most people considered Anbar a lost cause, but Petraeus and his forces have freed the province of its terrorist oppressors and created a political movement of Iraqi unity called Anbar Awakening, which continues to spread. Barack Obama suggested yesterday that Baghdad could use another 30,000 troops.
Now that their predictions of military failure have have died, the Democrats want to focus on the lack of political reform as a reason to leave. In January, they talked about how futile it was to play "whack-a-mole" when terrorists would simply move back and forth, and that the American and Iraqi forces could not clear and hold territory. Since that's been proven wrong, they now claim that the current Iraqi government cannot possibly institute the reforms Congress demands, such as oil revenue sharing and the forgiveness of former Ba'athists. Unless Iraq succeeds in these reforms as a sign of unity, we should withdraw, the argument will go.
That case appears weaker and weaker, however. Nouri al-Maliki has used the National Assembly recess to bypass his Shi'ite allies and start negotiations with Sunni tribal chiefs in Tikrit, the heart of Sunni resistance to his government. He negotiated cooperative agreements between the Kurds and the Shi'ite Islamic Council, the opponent of Maliki's former ally, Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's divisive influence has dramatically waned over the last few months -- and that started with the surge in February, when Sadr hotfooted it to Iran.
Will the Democrats demand on withdrawal and the catastrophic collapse that will follow, simply to defend the job rights of former Saddam Hussein apparatchiks and the divsion of oil profits?
Even those who still insist on firm timetables question the Democratic leadership's strategy. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) says that the inflexible and confrontational approach taken by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid has made it impossible to work with Republicans in Congress and the White House. Rather than asking the generals what they need, Congress has tried to dictate limits -- and lost. "I don't know what they're thinking," McNerney said to the Post about the leadership.
That's not true at all. Everyone knows what they're thinking. If they get outmanuevered again, the Democrats will catch hell from the activist base of their party and likely wind up losing the House to the Republicans in 2008. They can't afford to work cooperatively with the people Pelosi and Reid have successfully demonized with their voters, or they will look like complete hypocrites. That's the wages of demagoguery, and payday's coming in September.