Mind the Gap

It takes a unique sort of administration to decide that the reason its almost three-year-old war shows no signs of concluding successfully is that the president hasn't given enough speeches yet. But on the morning of November 30, the commander-in-chief was trotted out to do just that before an audience of midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. That same morning, the White House released a grandiosely titled “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” under the imprimatur of the National Security Council, which apparently had time to spare from its job of coordinating American foreign policy to engage in some political propaganda.

As a policy document, the “plan” is a bad joke. Most simply, the elements of the strategy, which relate overwhelmingly to training Iraqi troops, are unrelated to the war's aims of creating an Iraq that is “peaceful, united, stable, democratic, and secure” as well as “a partner in the global war on terror…integrated into the international community … proving the fruits of democratic governance to the region.” Plenty of countries with perfectly competent security forces (Iran, North Korea, or, for that matter, pre-war Iraq) are none of those things. The document's goals relate to the transformation of Iraqi society, while the means at hand -- killing terrorists and training soldiers -- have no capacity to achieve those things.

Nor are trends heading in a favorable direction. The Bush speech was bracketed on the one hand by press reports that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is sponsoring anti-Sunni death squads, and a Los Angeles Times account of the Kurdistan Regional Government striking freelance oil deals without permission from the central government.

But if Bush's “victory strategy” is unlikely to bring success in Iraq, it has won a signal domestic triumph: discomfiting the administration's political adversaries.

* * *

Back in mid-November, before Bush spoke, Democrats had seemed dangerously close to developing a reasonably unified, politically appealing approach to the war, symbolized by a Senate resolution demanding that the administration produce a plan for ending the war and set conditions whereby Congress could hold the White House accountable for failures. Republicans killed the measure, but they felt that in order to oppose it credibly, they needed a watered-down version of their own. That resolution passed 79 to 19, and it was successfully spun by Democratic Leader Harry Reid as a “vote of no confidence” in Bush, and prompted quick denunciations from the hawkish press.

With his speech, Bush succeeded in at least momentarily regaining the initiative and leaving the opposition unsure of how to respond. Part of the Democrats' trouble is that little agreement exists as to what strategy it is they're fighting. According to one influential school of thought adhered to by much of the center-left foreign policy community, the White House is essentially embracing withdrawal while claiming the reverse. On this theory, Bush's statement that troops will be withdrawn only as progress is made on the ground will be paired with the administration's habit of pretending progress is taking place, in order to allow America to exit Iraq as rapidly as possible while still painting Democrats as weak-kneed appeasers. In a rival account, more popular among activists, just the reverse is happening: Bush is merely trying to put a new rhetorical spin on the “stay the course” policy he's been implementing for over a year.

As a consequence, Democratic unity appeared to vanish within hours after the speech, prompting headlines like “Democratic Lawmakers Splinter on Iraq” in The Washington Post on December 2. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a move moderate Democrats viewed as both unwise and ill-timed, chose the afternoon of Bush's speech to join Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha in calling for withdrawal from Iraq as soon as possible. Soon afterwards, Steny Hoyer, Pelosi's number two and on-again off-again rival, took issue with her stance, saying, like the White House, that “a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster.”

On the Senate side, Reid's effort to delegate the task of offering a quasi-official response to Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger with a historically low national profile, ran into trouble, and the previously unified caucus was soon squabbling. Colorado freshman Ken Salazar praised Bush's speech as a step in the right direction, one that “begins to address the Senate's call for a successful exit strategy.” Ted Kennedy, by contrast, saw it as merely “lipstick put on to the administration's old plan.”

In reality, Democrats (with the exception of Joe Lieberman, who's moved toward full-scale apologetics for the administration) are closer to consensus than they appear. Though plans proliferate in the Senate, as Democratic Leadership Council Vice President for Policy Ed Kilgore observes, the differences “are rhetorical and increasingly meaningless,” with different terms -- “timetables,” (occasionally “flexible” ones), “schedules,” “estimated dates,” etc. -- “intended to send political signals to the left, right, or center rather than to express any meaningful policy differences.”

Even the Murtha-Pelosi stance is not as different from the Senate consensus as it appears. Murtha wants to withdraw troops “consistent with the safety of U.S. forces.” Devising an operational plan for doing so would take time. Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian who is required reading for American Army officers, has estimated that implementing such a plan would “require several months and incur a sizable number of casualties.” Murtha's plan envisions the creation of an “over-the-horizon” force to conduct counterterrorism operations in Iraq. As Brookings scholar Ivo Daalder observes, the “main difference is that Murtha would deploy these forces in Kuwait,” while most other plans envision a residual force staying in Iraq.

* * *

But if policy differences are relatively small, differences in political strategy are important, especially for an opposition party that gets to implement policy only if it starts winning elections first. To the frustration of strategists, public opinion on forward-looking policy is fundamentally ambivalent, with polls showing an extreme sensitivity to how questions are phrased and which options are put on the table. It's clear that only about a fifth of the population supports an “out now” view. But it's also clear that a majority is disgruntled with the war and would like to see it end sooner rather than later. At the same time, Americans aren't ready to embrace defeat.

Under the circumstances, harsh criticisms of what the administration has
accomplished thus far -- like many Democrats' proclivity for drawing attention to the Bush administration's habit of overstating the achievements of the training program for Iraqi security forces -- are to some extent counterproductive, dragging Bush down but also reinforcing the view that leaving the country would represent an unacceptable failure. More upbeat rhetoric, like Hillary Clinton's claim in a November 29 letter to constituents that “we are at a critical point with the Dec. 15 elections that should, if successful, allow us to start bringing home our troops in the coming year” helps Democrats make the case for withdrawal while avoiding the taint of defeatism.

What's needed, however, is a way to combine such an approach with steady pressure on the administration to proceed more quickly toward an exit. The quantitative formula put forward in a little-noticed plan from Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings fellow and invasion advocate, and Bill Danvers, a former Clinton National Security Council staffer, might do the trick -- pledging to “reduce the foreign military presence by one soldier for every two Iraqi soldiers” who reach the first or second tier of readiness. With Democrats essentially declaring victory and urging the administration to bring the troops home, Bush, rather than the opposition, would face a political dilemma. Either he could agree to demands for steady reductions in troop levels, or else he could explain the need for a sustained deployment with reference to failures of his own administration's policies.

Harsher liberal criticism could be focused away from the war's conduct to its origins, where public opinion has swung to the anti-war side in a much more clear-cut way. Democrats made substantial gains on this front in October and forced some action on the much-delayed second round of a Senate inquiry into the use of intelligence that should provide fodder for further attacks. Passing up the opportunity for cheap shots -- and even accurate criticisms -- of the White House's habit of viewing Iraq through rose-tinted glasses would be galling to many, but it's the best way to produce substantive pressure to end the war in a politically viable way.

Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.

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