Work and Days

The Politics of Surging

Can It Turn Around?

In all the shouting about a lost presidency and the Bush disaster, few pay attention to actual facts, much less the always changing state of the union. In the last 30 days, federal revenues reached an all-time monthly high, gas prices keep heading down, interest rates and unemployment remain low, with the stock market, home ownership percentages, and economic growth strong.

The key is Iraq: stabilize it, curb American casualties, and shift regional and international attention onto Iran and Hezbollah, and everyone wishes to take credit for a bold, risky, and successful policy. Lose Iraq, and the “I told you so” opportunists will only become more shrill—all known to the jihadists who, though themselves increasingly tired, know that they can win only by dominating the daily headlines, the more gruesome and savage the attacks the better.

Democratic Traction

The Democrats are wising up: Sen. Webb—not shrill and shouting Sens. Boxer, Durbin, Kennedy, Kerry, or Rockefeller—was asked to respond to the State of the Union. Finally, they have begun to see that their best path in criticizing Bush and Iraq was never Michael Moorism (Iraqi terrorists praised as “Minutemen”) or Sheehanism (the American President as the “world’s greatest terrorist”), but a sort of ‘those tribal people over there are not worth another dead American’—hence the Democratic trashing of the Maliki government.

In other words, Americans were not so fearful that we might be imperialists (they knew we had taken no one’s oil), but rather we were not winning quickly enough, and cowardly terrorists were killing brave Americans, who were restrained by the very government we helped to create. That new formula of criticism, post Abu-Ghraib, ironically will force the administration to expand the rules of engagement and give them greater leeway in doing what they must to win.

McClellanism

If you are a Democratic candidate like a Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, or Joe Biden and voted for the war, or one like Chris Dodd who advocated more troops, or ones like all of them who demanded Rumsfeld’s resignation and new leadership in Baghdad, what do you do now as the campaign heats up and 70% of the electorate are upset about Iraq?

Insist, of course, that you were misled by the devious Bush/Cheney cabal into thinking WMD in droves were in Iraq. Ignore the other 20-something counts you threw in on October 11, 2002 as insurance to justify going to war. Pontificate you were for sending more troops when it counted, but now it’s too little, too late. Ignore now the Secretary of Defense, past or present, as irrelevant. Stop praising the liberal Princeton educated Gen. Petraeus as one of your own, as was done from 2003-6. Stay mum and watch the surge, ready to offer “I warned you” if fatalities mount—or if it works, “I warned you to do this long ago.”

McClellan did almost all of this a century-and-half ago—and it would have worked had Sherman not taken Atlanta.

Does this mean that Bush, like Lincoln did not, has a mandate to continue indefinitely? Hardly. Like Lincoln in August 1864, Bush needs good news that the war is on the descent and can be won. In 2003 it was wise of the Pentagon to warn that “counter-insurgency takes years;” but entering the fifth year hence, the voters are saying “Yep, about five years.”

The Odd Couple

As a sidelight, it is hard to recall a more remarkable congruence between extreme left and right than the current symbiosis of the ideas of, say, the Nation Magazine and the American Conservative, as the paleo/libertarian right agrees with the radical left in alleging all sorts of baser motives–or sheer stupidity—in continuing the effort to secure Iraq.

For the first six months of 1941 the far-left wing of the Democratic Party sounded a lot like the Lindberg Right. The former were alleging that reactionaries were pushing the United States into an imperialistic war against a mostly benign Germany that had won the confidence of the progressive Soviets, the latter that Jews and pro-British agents were intent on spending American blood and treasure in Europe’s internecine wars that were none of our business. Of course, the German surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and Pearl Harbor half a year later ended this first manifestation of that strange commonality for decades. Today something like a US intervention to stop genocide in Darfur or an elected Democratic President sending more troops to save Afghanistan would do the same to its current resurrection.

Kerryism: Laugh or Cry?

Let me get this straight: John Kerry goes to Davos, at the World Economic Forum, where Eason Jordan once alleged that the US military targeted journalists in Iraq, and Bill Clinton praised Iranian “democracy” as more liberal than our own.

Once there he called the United States a pariah, among other things, while chatting along side former Iranian President Khatami, whose government is sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, while racing ahead to match its boast to wipe out Israel with the reality of nukes. And all this follows his deserved past chastisement for deriding those supposedly without education as “stuck in Iraq” and American soldiers as “terrorists” entering Iraqi homes.

What must be the irresistible urges that drive someone into such self-destructive pronouncements?

The List of Motives or Urges Is Endless.

Is it an elitism that is out of touch with what constitutes America? Or perhaps fear that Europeans might find even the American elite mere flag-waving bible thumpers like George Bush? Or a simpler partisanship that seeks to blame George Bush & Co. for things that go bad while attributing no credit for the positive. Or is it simply “I can’t believe I am losing to this guy” hurt after losing the election? Or a growing sense of self-realization—cf. his gaffes, his sad trips abroad to remedy lost stature, and the “I love you John Kerry (i.e., please go away)” homilies of Sen. Reid et al.?—that the game is over and he will never be President, much less a serious American politician and statesman respected abroad and honored at home?

Bipartisanship in War

Only once in American history did oppositional opportunism during a war reach such a degree that we lost a war—as we know from Vietnam, 1973-5. Usually the out-party tried to score points by ankle-biting the President, but not to the degree that demoralization set in.

Instead, usually the opposition kept the administration on its toes. We forget that most Republicans by 1943 were on the attack against the wartime Roosevelt administration. They condemned not only the escalating costs, but also the continued aid to the Soviet Union and the Roosevelt administration’s growing wartime powers at home. But when it came to fundamental changes, the out-of-power Republicans had few to offer.

Korea

During the election of 1952, Dwight Eisenhower pilloried outgoing Democratic President Harry Truman for the Korean War. He promised to visit the front and bring a general’s non-nonsense approach to fixing things—seeking victory rather than the quagmire of 1950-52. Yet after the Republican Ike was elected, the fighting still slogged on as before. Eventually, Eisenhower settled for a negotiated truce along the 38th parallel—about what the Truman administration had envisioned might be enough to contain communism in Korea.

Vietnam

Richard Nixon ran in 1968 against the six-year-long Kennedy-Johnson Democratic mess in Vietnam. He got elected in part on rumors of a “secret” plan of enticing Russia and China—through trade incentives and détente—to pressure their North Vietnamese client to be content with half, not the whole of the Vietnamese peninsula. But when in office, Nixon faced the same intractable problems that Kennedy and Johnson had. And so the war continued from 1969 through the end of his abbreviated governance in 1973.

Gerald Ford tried to win the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon war he inherited, but his Democratic opposition cut off funds and ended it by 1975—the first defeat in American history, and one increasingly looked back upon as avoidable.

Clinton

Bill Clinton neither consulted the Congress nor the United Nations in bombing and sending occupation troops to the Balkans. Republicans in the Senate protested and a few threatened to cut off funds. Democrats were unable to get a resolution passed expressing support for the President’s action. But Republicans offered no better way to stop the genocide in Kosovo and Bosnia.

No Nation-building

Even so, in 2000 George Bush ran on a platform of no-more expensive peace-keeping or nation-building, which Clinton had apparently decided—without Congressional sanction—was the proper new role of the American military in Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans. Yet after Bush took office, American troops stayed in the Balkans. And they are now deployed by the tens of thousands nation building in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rarely, then, in American history are wars the sole property of one particular party. Given our consensual system, they usually originate and continue from some sort of consensus. True, when things go bad, the out-party harps. And it always then takes credit when matters improve. Rarely, however, has one party been able to convince the public that the war was simply dreamed up by the war-hungry other.

And Now Iraq…

So too it is in Iraq. Right now we are in our fifth phase of a long Iraqi war. The first war of 1991 led by the senior Bush was supported by Democrats in the Senate, who were happy to see Saddam evicted from Kuwait. The second—the twelve years of no-fly zones and United Nations sanctions—kept Saddam “in his box.” It was overseen in bipartisan fashion by four consecutive administration. The third Iraqi war of 2003 lasted three weeks, ending with the removal of Saddam. It was authorized by Congress with Democratic approval, and the victory earned a 70% approval rating of the American people.

But the fourth—from 2003 to 2005—was the messy effort to oversee elections, and stop ex-Baathists, al Qaeda, and Sunni jihadists from destroying the newfound Iraqi democracy. As American losses climbed, public support eroded. As in the past, the opposition harped about mismanagement, but did little else.

For much of 2006 a fifth war of sorts evolved between Sunni and Shiite militias who both killed Americans in hopes of carving out their own spheres of influence. The Democrats are now vocal in their furor over the costs and the incessant violence, but so far have neither cut off funds nor quite written off Iraq as hopeless.

Why?

Despite the partisan rhetoric, sober Democrats know that Iraq won’t go away. Its strategic location, its natural oil wealth and importance to the world economy, worries over Iran, regional nuclear proliferation, proximity to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and the pan-Arabic factional fighting—all that and more explain why, whether governed by Democrats or Republicans, the United States was engaged fighting in or over Iraq in some fashion for the last 17 years. Both parties worried about an Iraqi dictatorship that attacked its neighbors, used its vast oil wealth to purchase deadly weapons, and promoted terrorists.

Now the Democrats are at a crossroads. They can continue to play the traditional role of demanding wiser tactics in the use of American military force to win the war—as the opposition did in 1944, 1952, 1968, and 2000. Or, as was true in 1974-5, they can cut off funds and abandon a nearly two-decade, bipartisan effort to solve the nearly unsolvable problem of Iraq.

Not Quite So Fast?

It’s their call, but they must make up their minds rather soon, because there is another wild card: the surge/change in tactics could work, and Iraq could settle down by autumn.

If that happened, then we would see a re-triangulation of the original triangulation: after professing to being misled by Bush into a failed war, after insisting that their call for more troops was heeded “too late”, they would then have to apply the breaks, quit the talk of pulling out, neo-con conspiracies, etc., and instead reconfigure for the 2008 elections: Hillary, Edwards, Dodd, Biden etc. all rightly voted for the war, endured Rumsfeld/Cheney errors, then through their own brave critiques brought a change of course, and therefore at last “won” the war. So they still need about 6 months of wriggle room to adjust to the perceived verdict of the battlefield.

Letters

I hope next posting to reply to issues raised by various comments, which I read carefully. The surge and its politics sort of took over this time.