While Republicans voice growing unease over U.S.
President George W. Bush's vow to "stay the course" in Iraq, Democrats
remain deeply divided about their position on a conflict that most of them privately
describe as a major foreign policy disaster.
Despite the plunging popularity of the war and of Bush's approval ratings
leading Democrats, particularly the party's brahmins in the Senate, have
so far refused to countenance talk of withdrawal, preferring instead to attack
the president over tactical issues rather than the war itself.
But their reticence no doubt inspired by their fear of being depicted
as "soft on terrorism" and the memory of their disastrous Vietnam
War-era splits between hawks and doves in the late 1960s and early 1970s
is appearing increasingly untenable as the party's grassroots activists enlist
in what is becoming, thanks to the mother of one fallen soldier, a serious,
new antiwar movement, and as prominent Republicans themselves demonstrate a
growing willingness to question the war.
"We should start figuring out how we get out of there," Republican
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran with presidential
ambitions, told a national public-affairs television program Sunday.
"I think our involvement [in Iraq] has destabilized the Middle East. And
the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur,"
he said, comparing the present conflict's similarity to the Vietnam War.
"What I think the White House does not yet understand and some
of my colleagues the dam has broke [sic] on this policy. The longer we
stay there, the more similarities [with Vietnam] are going to come together."
Hagel's remarks came as a new spate of polls found that public opinion against
the war has strengthened over the summer. Bush's approval ratings have fallen
to their lowest level ever between 36 percent and 40 percent amid strong
indications that his performance on Iraq is the main culprit.
Other recent surveys have found that majorities now see the decision to go
to war as a mistake and favor either an immediate or gradual withdrawal.
While one would think that Hagel's public concerns and Bush's sinking poll
numbers as well as the surprising near-victory by a strongly antiwar
Iraq veteran in a recent election in a solidly Republican congressional district
in Ohio would give leading Democrats the political confidence to stake
out a more aggressive position on the war, that has not turned out to be the
While about half of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives
the chamber considered closest to the grassroots voted in May for a resolution
requiring the president to formulate an exit strategy for Iraq, the party's
Senate leaders have refused even to table such an initiative.
So far, only one likely 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. Russell Feingold,
has called for a complete withdrawal by Jan. 1, 2007 although, in a television
interview Sunday, he stressed that the date should considered a "target,"
rather than a "deadline."
On the other hand, five of the party's most prominent leaders 2004 presidential
candidate Sen. John Kerry, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Joseph Biden,
Sen. Evan Bayh, and Sen. Hillary Clinton have not only opposed setting a
date for withdrawal, but have also, at various times, supported substantially
increasing the number of troops in Iraq, as well as the size of the U.S. Army
and Marine Corps. The last three are all considered by the party establishment
as strong presidential candidates.
"If we were to artificially set a deadline of some sort, that would be
like giving a green light to the terrorists, and we can't afford to do that,"
Clinton, whose ex-president husband has also refused to publicly criticize the
war, noted last February.
Biden, who, as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, serves
as the Democrat's chief foreign-policy spokesman, warned earlier this summer,
"We cannot afford to lose." Even the party's chairman, former antiwar
candidate Howard Dean, has been mute on the issue.
Unlike Feingold, all five Democratic leaders also voted in October 2002 to
give Bush the authorization to go to war, a fact that may make it far more difficult
for them to call for a pullout, lest they be accused, like Kerry during the
2004 campaign, by Republicans of "flip-flopping" on a vital national-security
They are also clearly haunted by what happened to the party during the Vietnam
era when a split between hawks and doves paved the way for Richard Nixon's victory
in 1968 and his landslide 1972 defeat of George McGovern, whose straightforwardly
antiwar stance has been repeatedly caricatured by Republicans to label the Democrats
as "soft" on national security.
Indeed, some top Democratic advisers, including Clinton's savvy former communications
chief Michael McCurry, insist that Democrats should indeed be very careful in
"Credit the Democrats for not trying to pour more gasoline on the fire,
even if they're not particularly unified in their message," McCurry told
the Washington Post this week. "The smartest thing for Democrats
to do is be supportive."
McCurry's position is also consistent with much of the party's foreign-policy
establishment, such as former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary
of State Madeleine Albright, and key advisers situated at think tanks such as
the Brookings Institution.
As noted in a recent
article by The Nation magazine's Ari Berman, this "strategic
class" is dominated by "national-security Democrats" who generally
supported the war in Iraq even as they criticized Bush for taking such a unilateralist
At the same time, however, the refusal of top Democrats to reassess their position
is spurring growing frustration and even anger, both among grassroots Democrats
who have been emboldened both by the polls and by the way that Cindy Sheehan,
the bereaved mother of a dead U.S. Marine who camped out most of this month
outside Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch, has put the president on the defensive,
and by some prominent unelected leaders and funders.
Indeed, former Sen. Gary Hart, a longtime national security honcho whose 1988
front-runner presidential candidacy was derailed by an extramarital affair,
charged in a Washington Post column entitled "Who
Will Say 'No More'?" Wednesday that leading Democrats were "cowardly"
for remaining silent in what he called "a moral crisis."
"No Democrat, especially one now silent, should expect election by default,"
he wrote. "The public trust must be earned and speaking clearly, candidly
and forcefully now about the mess in Iraq is the place to begin," he argued,
challenging Democratic leaders who supported the war to say, "I made a
That is increasingly the message of the activist wing of the party, which worries
that a disillusioned electorate will punish Democrats for leaving the initiative
to Bush in hopes that it will all turn sour.
"You can play the game of letting Bush debate with himself for so long,"
Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, a political action committee,
told the Los Angeles Times. "In a political sense, having Bush alone
on the stage may help, but in the sense of actually resolving this problem,
I don't see that it does."
(Inter Press Service)