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Finessing The Surge

Some Democrats in Congress were for the Iraq war before they were against it. But that was before some of them were for it again-at least, sort of.

If that sounds confusing, just think how confusing it must be for them. A number of those Democrats who originally voted to invade Iraq but then opposed the surge back in January-and even a few who had opposed the invasion of Iraq from the start–have been doing some fairly energetic scrambling lately to position themselves.

Initially their post-2006 election strategy seemed simple: let the Bush administration go for the surge, which was doomed to failure. At the same time deplore it and try to prevent it (or end it prematurely) by presenting him with legislation calling for troop withdrawal, early deadlines, and/or funding reductions.

The first course of action would allow its proponents to say “we told you so” when the surge inevitably failed. The second might placate the antiwar Democratic base even if Bush managed to withstand the pressure to withdraw. On the other hand, if successful in forcing an early pullout, the second strategy would mean that the spectacle of the bitter end in Iraq would come on Bush’s watch, where it rightly belonged.

But something funny happened on the way to General Petraeus’s September 2007 report to Congress: the surge begin to work.

And now the Democrats face a different prospect if the trend continues: they may have to acknowledge that they were wrong in opposing the surge (in certain cases, in writing it off before it truly began). They might even lose the 2008 election as a result. Or, if victorious, they would have to make tough decisions about how to prosecute the rest of the war. If the latter occurs they will, ironically, find themselves in what might be called “the Nixon position”-that is, they’ll have to decide how to finish a difficult war that another party’s administration began.

Iraq has been rife with Vietnam analogies from the start, and Congress’s evaluation of the surge’s chances is no exception. A key image from Vietnam was that of the famous helicopters on the roof, a scene representing the chaotic and shameful abandonment of our allies there.

That memory was invoked early on in Iraq by none other than Saddam Hussein who, according to this article by Melvin Laird, played the images over and over on Iraqi television during the buildup to the Iraq war in order to remind his population not to trust a United States that had a history of abandoning those whom it sought to liberate.

The same image was recalled by Sen. Joseph Biden when the surge was being proposed in January of 2007. Biden was adamantly against the troop increase, stating his concern that the Bush administration’s motive for the change in policy was to postpone the bitter end in Iraq so that the next President (presumably a Democrat?) would “be the guy landing helicopters inside the Green Zone, taking people off the roof.”

Now that the Democrats-including the Presidential candidates–are beginning to realize that the war is probably going to last until at least the January 2009 inauguration to which they’ve been counting down so vigorously and so hopefully, it behooves them to consider how they will handle the situation if they are in charge of Congress and/or the Presidency at that time.

The recent sea-change in attitudes towards the surge was heralded by an article that appeared at the end of July in the New York Times. Written by Michael E. O’Hanlon and Kenneth R. Pollack of the Brooking Institute and entitled “A war we just might win,” it detailed the surprising success of the surge’s efforts so far. It must have sent shockwaves through antiwar Democrats in the legislature by ending with a call to Congress to sustain the effort “at least until 2008.”

If O’Hanlon and Pollack mounted a challenge to Democrats to support a surge previously decried, at least the article provided those same Democrats with guidance when it stated, “Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another …This cannot continue indefinitely.”

Only too true, unfortunately; and the situation has led some Congressional Democrats (and at least one Republican, John Warner) to emphasize seemingly justified doubts about the political leaders of Iraq. Senator Levin has gone so far as to call for Maliki’s removal, prompting President Bush to chide that such an act would be up to the Iraqi people. And if it seems odd that members of a bitterly divisive and relatively do-nothing Congress should criticize the Iraqi government for similar flaws, it’s just another example of the human tendency to counsel “do as I say, not as I do.”

Not all members of Congress make decisions based on cynical self-interest, of course. No doubt some of those who’ve changed their minds have done so on higher principles–such as, for instance, Rep. Brian Baird, a Democrat whose antiwar record is strong (he even voted against going to war) but whose most recent trip to Iraq has convinced him not only that the surge has a chance and needs more time, but that he needs to voice this opinion even if it isn’t a popular one in his party. What’s more, he sounds sincere.

President Nixon presided over the Vietnamization of that conflict, including the phased drawdown of US combat forces there and the turning over of the fighting to the South Vietnamese. In the end, though, Congress reflected an exhausted America by cutting the funding for supplies and support for the South Vietnamese. A weakened and appointed President Ford could not oppose Congress, and those famous helicopters on the roof-and their aftermath, the tragedy of the boat people and the killing fields of Cambodia-followed.

Antiwar activists of that time such as Tom Hayden considered forcing the Vietnam withdrawal to have been their finest hour. And already, back in November of 2004, Hayden himself was calling for a similar abandonment of Iraq, detailing a program to do just that and writing, “The anti-war movement can force the Bush administration to leave Iraq by denying it the funding, troops, and alliances necessary to its strategy…”

So far it hasn’t been successful, although it may yet accomplish its aims. But with fewer days to go until the end of the Bush administration, the Democrats may run out of the time they would need to force a Republican to preside over the debacle. And if the Democrats win the 2008 Presidential election and find themselves in the Nixon position, they will have to exercise caution lest they be the ones in command when those dread helicopters are photographed in a frantic attempt to evacuate desperate people from the roofs of Baghdad.

Neo-Neocon is a New England-based blogger.