The midterm elections have produced a conundrum.
Virtually everybody agrees that the Democratic sweep of Congress was largely attributable to anger about the war. Americans may be uncertain as to what should
be done in Iraq, but they are unhappy with the current situation and want change.
This sets up a nasty dilemma. Roll the tape forward to the presidential election
of 2008: If the war is still going as it has been for the last two years, the
Republicans will lose. No matter who the Democrats run, the voters will support
him or her over amy Republican nominee. Moreover, more seats in both houses
will go to the Democrats, giving that party overwhelming strength in Congress.
The Democratic candidate for president must leap one major hurdle before the
election. Voters will want to know what the new administration will do about
the war. In 1952, the war in Korea was deeply unpopular with the voters. Dwight
D. Eisenhower, who was running for president at the time, promised to go
to Korea to see what could be done to stop the fighting. He did so in 1952,
after which an armistice was negotiated. Some 15 years later the Vietnam
War, also extremely unpopular, had generated an antiwar movement. The opposition
to the conflict forced the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, to give up hope
of reelection. Richard Nixon, in a tight race against Hubert
Humphrey, promised to bring peace with honor but refused to spell out what
he intended to do. The Democrats attacked his "secret plan" to end
the fighting in Southeast Asia, but opposition to the war was so strong that
the Democrats could not win.
In both those wars, the party that initiated the war lost the next election.
The opponent in both cases was called on to say what he would do, and both candidates
avoided being specific. In the election of 2008, the Democrat will have to promise
to end the fighting but be vague about how he or she will do it. If the candidate
is specific, the opposition will pick any plan apart and claim that the candidate
is surrendering to the terrorists. In both Korea and Vietnam, the final outcomes
did not look like surrenders, although neither was a victory for the U.S.
Consequently, Democrats who want to take back the government may hope that
the war continues, although they cannot articulate this sentiment. In fact,
Democrats must appear to be antiwar. In their hearts, however, they know that
if the war continues on its current trajectory, they will be a shoo-in to sweep
the Republicans from power.
This must also be obvious to the Republicans. If you are Arizona Sen. John
McCain, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, or
any other would-be GOP presidential candidate, you know that, if the war continues,
you will be wasting your time. Republicans in Congress must know as well that
what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan affects their future prospects. For the
GOP to win back the Congress and keep the presidency, the U.S. must be out of
Iraq, and America must look as though it won, or at least didn't lose.
President George W. Bush continues to articulate his position that we cannot
leave until we have won, whatever "won" means. Obviously, the president
is unable to admit that this war has been lost or is lost. He cannot face the
prospect that the war will be judged a huge mistake. Vice-president Dick Cheney,
the person most responsible for the war and its failure, is still insisting
that the U.S. must continue the battle and that eventually we will win. As far
as can be judged from the outside, Cheney is still very influential with Bush.
So, in the next two years, can the Republicans talk the president into "cutting
and running"? They will need to find some way of declaring victory before
withdrawing. Given Bush's ego, it will be hard to convince him that he must
fall on his sword. If he doesn't, his party will be impaled on it.
The war is going very badly. About three Americans are dying every day in Iraq.
Some 3,000 Iraqis are losing their lives every month. Professionals continue
to flee the country. As this is being written, Shi'ite militants are lobbing
mortars into Sunni areas, and vice-versa. There is little hope that the situation
in that country will improve in the next few years. Although various observers
and some members of Congress have suggested changes in policy, nothing short
of withdrawal has much of a chance to reduce the mayhem.
If the president cannot be made to admit defeat and leave, the next president,
almost certainly a Democrat, will have to pull out our troops. When he or she
does that, however, the Republicans will accuse the White House of being cowardly,
losing the war, and endangering the United States. The public will also be unhappy
with the government. Americans want out of Iraq, but most also want to win.
Few will admit that winning is impossible. Demagogues will insist that we have
the best military in the world and question why we were unable to inflict our
will on a small, backward country.
Therefore, the Republicans can take hope. They will probably win the elections