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August 25, 2005

Democrats Fumble Iraq Policy

by Jim Lobe

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 case.

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 issue.

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 criticizing Bush.

"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 position.

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 mistake…"

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)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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