December 5, 2007

The New/Old Democratic Strategy On Iraq

The Democrats have a new strategy on Iraq war funding that looks a lot like the old strategy: chaos. Unable to come up with a way to meddle with the successful strategy of General David Petraeus, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi will attempt to punt on additional funding until January. At that point, they may try to dump withdrawal timetables for a series of short-term appropriations that may wind up keeping troops in Iraq longer than they promised:

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) is examining a new approach, releasing war funds in small increments, with further installments tied to specific performance measures for Iraq's politicians. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) also is searching for a new approach and has been briefed on the idea of more explicitly tying funds to political progress.

The new thrust has divided Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, some of whom say they will never approve additional funding for the Iraq war without troop-withdrawal timelines. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) remains skeptical, House Democratic leadership sources said, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has vacillated between seeking compromise with Republicans and holding firmly to troop-withdrawal language.

"We've been through all that," Reid said yesterday of the new approach, suggesting the war-funding issue will wait until January. "I just think we need to figure out some way to fund a government and move on to next year."

The new approach contains considerable political risks for Democrats. If they choose to adopt realistic measurements of political progress, they would be signaling a willingness to leave U.S. combat troops in Iraq far longer than Democratic voters want, said Michael O'Hanlon, a Democratic defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.

O'Hanlon has a column in USA Today wondering why the Democrats have spent the year acting against the strategy they enabled, and that wound up succeeding:

Rarely in U.S. history has a political party diagnosed a major failure in the country's approach to a crucial issue of the day, led a national referendum on the failing policy, forced a change in that policy that led to major substantive benefits for the nation — and then categorically refused to take any credit whatsoever for doing so.

This is, of course, the story of the Democrats and the Iraq war over the past 13 months. Without a Democratic takeover of the Congress in 2006, there is little chance that President Bush would have acknowledged his Iraq policy to be failing, and that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker would have been accorded the resources and the policy latitude needed to radically improve the situation on the ground.

Democrats were not the authors of the surge and in fact generally opposed it. But without their pressure, it probably never would have happened. We now have a realistic chance, not of victory, but of what my fellow Brookings scholar Ken Pollack and I call sustainable stability. Violence rates have dropped by half to two-thirds in the course of 2007, the lowest level in years. Iraq is still very unstable, but it has a chance.

Despite this progress, many Democrats are inclined to provide Bush the roughly $12 billion a month he requests for Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 only if the money is devoted narrowly to counterterrorism and bringing home U.S. troops. This is a mistake.

It's an interesting take, one worth considering. Would Rumsfeld have gotten the heave-ho if the Republicans retained control of Congress in 2006? Apparently so, as that decision had been reached in the summer of that year. Republicans felt so angered by Rumsfeld's dismissal on the day after the election because they felt -- and still do -- that dismissing Rumsfeld in the summer may have saved at least the Senate.

Otherwise, O'Hanlon overstates the case. The Democrats may or may not have put pressure on George Bush to fire Rumsfeld, but events in Iraq had much more effect than Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. Recall that in the summer of 2006, the Pentagon and Baghdad had announced a new security plan for the capital, and that it failed miserably. Six months after the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, sectarian strife continued to increase, and Rumsfeld appeared to have run out of answers. The Bush administration wanted new eyes on the problem, likely prompted more from the military commanders who had chafed under Rumsfeld's leadership.

When Bush changed course, he went in the opposite direction from O'Hanlon's heroes. He chose an aggressive commander and upped the troop levels substantially, all against Democratic protests. The stability that O'Hanlon sees did not come from the "national referendum" of Democrats, but despite it. That's why the Democrats can't afford to acknowledge its success, and why they want to have yet another "national referendum" on the matter in 2008, despite having been proven excruciatingly wrong.

Still, O'Hanlon's piece provides the Democrats an opportunity to declare victory and go home, in a sense. If they finally accept reality in Iraq, they can claim their overstated piece of the success and then deprioritize Iraq in their agenda. That will anger the antiwar activists, but it will provide them with a way to avoid alienating practically everyone else. It beats the current strategy of attempting to find some benchmark to meter the money for troops in the field who have succeeded in beating back terrorists and creating ground-up reconciliation in a theater Democrats declared a defeat for the US before the battle ever got fought.


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