November 25, 2007

Democrats Lose Footing On Iraq

The Democrats thought that Iraq would make the 2008 elections a cakewalk -- that voters would throw flowers in their path, joyously celebrating their liberation from a complete American defeat. As it turns out, a funny thing happened on the way to the cakewalk -- the US forgot to lose. As the situation improves in Iraq, the Democrats now face the task of defending their prior rhetoric and retooling the message in order to avoid the defeatist label in 2008:

As violence declines in Baghdad, the leading Democratic presidential candidates are undertaking a new and challenging balancing act on Iraq: acknowledging that success, trying to shift the focus to the lack of political progress there, and highlighting more domestic concerns like health care and the economy.

Advisers to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say that the candidates have watched security conditions improve after the troop escalation in Iraq and concluded that it would be folly not to acknowledge those gains. At the same time, they are arguing that American casualties are still too high, that a quick withdrawal is the only way to end the war and that the so-called surge in additional troops has not paid off in political progress in Iraq.

But the changing situation suggests for the first time that the politics of the war could shift in the general election next year, particularly if the gains continue. While the Democratic candidates are continuing to assail the war — a popular position with many of the party’s primary voters — they run the risk that Republicans will use those critiques to attack the party’s nominee in the election as defeatist and lacking faith in the American military.

If security continues to improve, President Bush could become less of a drag on his party, too, and Republicans may have an easier time zeroing in on other issues, such as how the Democrats have proposed raising taxes in difficult economic times.

For the past year, the Democrats have portrayed the American effort in Iraq as a failure. Their leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, publicly announced that we had lost and that we should immediately retreat. Their leading candidate for President, Hillary Clinton, all but called the commander of American forces in Iraq a liar when he reported on the progress that even the Times now acknowledges as real and obvious.

Democrats have a problem larger than just the message. The substance of their policy remains defeatist. They claim that they want a new strategy in Iraq, all but oblivious that the new strategy adopted in January has proven very successful. Their strategy -- smaller forces, disengaged from a reeling enemy -- would actually return us to the failing strategy of 2006. It would provide al-Qaeda in Iraq and the militias a respite just when they have been pushed to the last extremity.

It would also signal the tribal leaders who have thrown in with the Americans to start looking for a better deal. Petraeus has built his strategy on the Iraqi tribal system, a factor that previous top-down efforts by the US completely ignored. The successful building of alliances has created a pushback against sectarian militias and terrorists that also ignored the power of tribal leadership. This strategy has begun to build political momentum towards moderation and compromise even in Baghdad, where the sectarian rifts opened by the Samarra bombing have finally begun to heal.

Democrats complain that the Nouri al-Maliki government has completely failed to take advantage of the window to pass reconciliation legislation, and that much is true. The American Congress made their priorities and goals known, and Maliki hasn't met them. However, as Charles Krauthammer noted this week, the oil revenue continues to be split among the factions, amnesty is proceeding apace with all but the murderous of the insurgents, and a relaxation of de-Baathification has quietly begun. In practical terms, without creating political flashpoints, Iraq slowly returns to business.

As long as that trend continues, the cakewalk of 2008 begins to look like a hard, tough slog. And the Democrats have already proven themselves incapable of committing to winning anything but cakewalks.


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» NY TImes: Democrats refuse to change course in Iraq, despite facts on the ground from The Unalienable Right
The NY Times reports on top Democrats' refusal to accept reality and change course: Advisers to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama say that the candidates have watched security conditions improve after the troop escalation in Iraq and co... [Read More]

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So, when your party has spent the last two years claiming defeat in Iraq, and doing everything possible to bring about that defeat, how do you handle things when we are actually winning? You acknowledge the successes, claim that the cost is still too h... [Read More]