Thanks to a fragile but real improvement in the security situation in Iraq, it has become possible to imagine the United States and its allies achieving what could plausibly be described as a win. But a win how defined, and with what implications? We asked a diverse group of observers to ponder these questions.
Americans have greeted the improving security picture in Iraq with a mixture of relief and cold-blooded realism. After four years of steadily mounting carnage, the falling body count of the last four months is indeed cause for celebration. For most of a war-weary public, however, the lull in violence is not enough to redeem the heavy costs of our ill-fated expedition into a Mesopotamian heart of darkness.
Nor does the improving picture seem likely to reshape the basic contours of the 2008 election campaign. To most voters, Iraq is liable to remain the most serious count in a lengthy indictment of Bush Administration blunders, foreign and domestic. As such, the war will continue to weigh heavily on Republican prospects come November, and give Democrats a chance to dispel lingering doubts about their ability to keep America strong and safe.
To acknowledge these political realities is not to deny the impressive progress U.S. forces have made in stabilizing Iraq since last summer. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution estimates that violence rates across the country have dropped by as much as two-thirds. Iraqis who fled the chaos of incipient civil war in 2006 are beginning to trickle home, and commerce seems to be flickering back to life in many communities. Under General David Petraeus’ direct guidance, the U.S. military seems finally to have found an effective response to Iraq’s anarchic butchery. Crucially, his efforts have reinforced the decision by tens of thousands of Sunnis to quit the insurgency and turn their guns against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Recent polls show growing public optimism about the situation in Iraq, though on balance most Americans remain pessimistic. Strikingly, there has been no erosion in the large majority (60 percent) who say the war wasn’t worth fighting. The public’s ambivalence seems rooted in recognition that the security gains in Iraq are more tactical than strategic. Iraqi leaders, alas, have failed so far to take advantage of improving security conditions to achieve the political reconciliation everyone agrees is essential to pacifying the country. Without breakthroughs on the political front, Petraeus himself warns, the security gains in Iraq are “tenuous.”
Attitudes about Iraq are not immutable. After all, most Americans supported the Iraq war before they opposed it. But as the human and economic costs of the occupation have risen, public opinion has hardened along party lines. Indeed, Iraq may be the nation’s most polarizing conflict since Democrats and Whigs fell out over the Mexican-American War. Rank-and-file Republicans have mostly stuck with President Bush. But as first Democrats and then independents turned against his policies, they have forged a solid, left-to-center majority in favor of cutting America’s losses in Iraq. The political consolidation of such sentiments over the course of 2005 propelled the Democratic sweep in the 2006 midterm election, and that coalition—more accurately described as “anti-occupation” than antiwar—seems to be holding in 2008.
Nonetheless, on the margins, U.S. successes on the ground in Iraq do affect the debate within and between the parties. For example, they confront the war’s harshest critics with the subversive notion that America is finally doing something right in Iraq. Against U.S. intervention from the start, the Bush-loathing Left was preternaturally certain it would be a disaster even before things started to go badly awry following the swift U.S. victory in the spring of 2003. Now, despite the slackening pace of attacks on Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops, and the flushing out of al-Qaeda from much of Anbar province and Baghdad, these critics show no signs of reconsidering their “out now” demands. For Americans whose minds are not completely closed on the subject, such dogmatic insistence that we cannot salvage any kind of decent outcome in Iraq smacks of rooting for failure—and it will drive votes away from Democratic politicians to the extent that such a view becomes identified with the Democratic Party as a whole.
The declining violence in Iraq also bolsters the responsible, if sketchy, case that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, rather than a pell-mell rush for the exits. A total pullout now, the non-negotiable demand of online pressure groups, lefty bloggers, lawmakers and former presidential aspirant Bill Richardson, would demoralize our newfound Sunni allies, enable al-Qaeda to regroup, lift the lid on Shi‘a extremist groups and abandon, yet again, Iraq’s Kurds.
Glib promises by Democrats to end “Bush’s war” ignore an inconvenient truth: Iraq will become their war if they capture the White House this fall. No Democratic president can afford to be bound by promises to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq so quickly as to endanger their hard-won progress in stabilizing broad swaths of Iraq. Instead, the Party’s nominee will need to spell out a more explicit exit strategy that gives U.S. forces time to assist in a host of vital tasks: helping refugees return to their homes; integrating tens of thousands of Sunni volunteers into Iraq’s security forces (so they don’t turn their weapons against the government once we’re gone); training police and embedding in Iraqi army units; helping those forces suppress feuding Shi‘a militias; and buttressing a “diplomatic surge” aimed at accelerating the pace of political reconciliation in Iraq.
The U.S. military has already begun to reduce its numbers in Iraq to pre-surge levels, and it is reportedly contemplating further cuts. In the heat of a presidential election, it’s a safe bet that Democrats and Republicans will not agree on the pace and scope of troop withdrawals. Republicans still hold out hope for “victory”, whatever that might mean, while Democrats say that improving security there allows us to bring our soldiers home sooner. They also argue, plausibly, that Iraqi leaders will lack incentive to settle their political differences as long as they can rely on U.S. troops to bail them out.
One strategic imperative, however, should be beyond partisan debate: the need to keep squeezing al-Qaeda in Iraq. The war’s critics are correct in pointing out that there were no al-Qaeda acolytes in Iraq before we invaded. But they’re there now, and al-Qaeda’s high command has designated Iraq as the critical battle in its war on America. That salafi fanatics are losing the fight for Sunni hearts and minds in Iraq cannot fail to be a demoralizing blow to the global jihadi movement.
For their part, Republicans have seized on the progress in Iraq as evidence that President Bush’s troop surge is working, though toward what end isn’t clear. It is significant, though, that the President’s dismal approval ratings have not risen with the tide of good news from Iraq. GOP strategists surely understand that there is no plausible scenario that could turn Iraq into an electoral asset for Republicans before the November vote.
The GOP candidate who in theory, at least, should gain most from progress in Iraq is John McCain. Not only did Senator McCain lead the charge for the surge, but unlike most Republicans, he was also a scathing critic of prior White House policies. He was among the first to call for more troops, for the critically important switch to counterinsurgency doctrine, and for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s head. But there’s a hitch: Independent voters, a key McCain constituency in 2000 and in this race as well, don’t share his ardent pro-war views.
Paradoxically, good news from Iraq has also reinforced public fatigue with the war. One consequence is that voter anxieties about the economy and immigration have moved to center stage. The declining salience of security concerns could spell trouble for all Republicans, but none more so than Rudy Giuliani, whose already-faltering campaign is predicated on his image as a tough guy eager to protect Americans from global terrorists and domestic criminals.
Nonetheless, national security will not drop off voters’ radar altogether—not with Americans fighting and dying in both Iraq and Afghanistan, turmoil engulfing Pakistan and a public that, for all its worries about job stability, health care and economic inequality, remains rightly apprehensive about terrorism. Normally, such fears would dispose many voters toward Republicans. But the Bush Administration’s misfires in Iraq and elsewhere have narrowed, if not closed altogether, the “national security confidence gap” in U.S. politics. On every security issue, even fighting terrorism, the public now gives Democrats a substantial edge. On handling Iraq, for example, a December 2007 Washington Post poll found that the public trusts Democrats by a 49–35 margin. That’s no political small change.
Most Americans recognize that the United States cannot “win” in Iraq without drastically defining victory down, well below the standard President Bush set for the war in 2003. At the same time, they aren’t ready to embrace the Left’s self-fulfilling prophecy of Iraq as another Vietnam-style calamity. The ebbing of terrorist and sectarian violence in Iraq points to a third possibility: n orderly, unhurried U.S. withdrawal that consolidates recent security gains and, by continually adjusting to changing realities on the ground, maximizes the chance that America can leave Iraq with its vital interests and honor intact. That’s now the center ground in this debate, and Democrats have a chance to seize it.