YOU WON -- NOW WHAT? That's the title of Taegan Goddard's book on post-election politics, but it's also a question for the GOP, and those supporting our efforts in Iraq generally. Though I agree with Larry Kudlow that the resolution was imperfect, it did produce a valuable moment of clarity, as floor votes, like elections, are supposed to. People may want to talk about whether the war was a good idea, but they don't really want to yank the troops, which pretty much everyone agrees would be a disaster with enormous long-term ramifications,.
But there's still the question of what to do next. As I mentioned earlier, I think that the Administration has probably felt that letting the war take a lower media profile was better -- we've had troops in the Balkans for going on a decade, after all, and there's not much move to pull them out, partly because most people have forgotten they're there. But this is different.
As StrategyPage pointed out in a timely piece a few weeks back, it's long been known that there's a "three-year rule" with regard to the American public's patience with a shooting war. We're coming up on 3 years since Saddam was toppled, but it's already been over four years since September 11 and the liberation of Afghanistan. That means that in the natural order of things we'll see more opposition and disquiet. (Even in World War Two people were getting pretty war-weary by 1945.)
The Administration needs to deal with this with a more active PR strategy, making clear that in fact the Iraqis are taking over the brunt of the work. (Murtha's statement that U.S. troops are magnets for insurgent attacks is demonstrably untrue -- in fact, those attacks are now almost always against Iraqis, civilian or military or police, and this fact is making the insurgents increasingly unpopular). I suspect that in the normal course of events we'll see a significant number of troops drawn down. That will help, and this resolution will help keep people from spinning it as a cut-and-run.
They also need to generate (and to the extent possible, publicize) more successes elsewhere, deal with Syria, etc. The Administration's "war base" is weakening (and was even before the election) because they feel that it's not fighting the war hard enough, or because they feel that the "war" is over. It's not, but the "major combat" part has been over for a while, and what's left is murky, and -- like all counterinsurgency operations -- takes a while. More elections in iraq will help, but they need to pay attention to this, not keep it off the table and hope people will forget. It's not Bosnia, or Haiti. They're going to have to make their case, strongly and regularly, and not worry that doing so will set off the critics. The critics are already set off.
UPDATE: A dissection of the NYT's coverage of last night's vote.
Murtha has now established exactly the worst context for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. By making his (understandable) teary concern about the injuries to our soldiers his central motiviation, he makes it seem, if we pull out now, that the Sunni/Zarqawi strategy has worked--that we've been run out of Iraq because we couldn't tolerate the casualties the insurgents were inflicting. That will encourage Al Qaeda operatives around the globe. Isn't it a lot better if we start to withdraw, after a successful Iraqi election, while plausibly claiming that we've done our job? That's why Hastert's stunt yesterday to put down Murtha's proposal was amply justified.
Indeed. And Opinionated Bastard has been on the story of pending troop withdrawals for a while, though I believe this was actually announced last spring.