Iraq: Front and Center

For many Americans this election is a referendum on the Iraq war and those who led us into it.

In the final sprint up to November 7th, Iraq remains uppermost on voter’s minds. Polls show that when asked to name the most important issue determining their vote, “Iraq” is far and away number one. And by an ever increasing margin, voters’ are dissatisfied with the President’s handling of the war.

Despite public posturing, the White House knows that Iraq is not a winning issue. Understanding that they were playing a losing hand, they attempted to shift attention to other concerns. But the leak of a National Intelligence Estimate report concluding that Iraq had become a “cause celebre” for terrorists, the publication of two rather shocking best-selling books about the Administration’s failures and lies in the war, and the spike in deadly violence in Iraq, have combined to keep the war front and center.

When not trying to change the subject, the Administration played with shifting how they talked about Iraq. At first, they raised the slogan “staying the course,” which they contrasted with what they called the Democrats’ position of “cutting and running in the face of the enemy.” In reality, however, that slogan proved problematic, as well as false. In fact, since the beginning of the war, the Administration has both repeatedly shifted its tactics and dumbed down its goals in Iraq. So, on the one hand, there has been no discernable “course” to “stay.” More importantly, “staying the course” became a liability. When, by a margin of almost 2 to 1, voters disapprove of the handling of the war–”promising to “stay the course” is the “kiss of electoral death.”

And so it was that two weeks that “stay the course” was officially banished and replaced by a “commitment to adapt” and be flexible.

What all of these verbal antics point to is a war going badly and an Administration struggling to find a way to package and sell their failure as successfully as they sold the war in the first place. In the process they are flailing about, both in the war effort itself and politically, on the home front.

In Iraq, failed US tactics come and go. The war in Anbar failed, as has the effort to pacify Baghdad. The much heralded election and creation of a coalition government has instead produced defiant paralysis. Some in Washington are now proposing to support the emergence of a military strongman, á la Sadaam II.

All of this might be a comic farce if it were not so deadly and tragic.

Unfortunately, most leading Democrats have very little of consequence to add to this discussion. The two most prevalent ideas circulating these days are either dangerous or of little use. The partition scheme is one. But as the former Iraqi Ambassador to the US recently wrote in the Washington Post, a forced partition, far from ending violence, would worsen an already bad situation. Not only would partition hasten a full civil war, it could risk spreading the conflict into the broader region. Another proposal would mandate a phased withdrawal of US troops tied to performance requirements imposed on the Iraqi government and its security forces. This, too, has failure written all over it, largely because the Iraqi government is too weak and internally divided to “perform as required.” The competing groups making up the governing coalition in Baghdad are themselves part of the country’s problem since each have militias that are suspected to be behind much of the sectarian violence.

None of this should be understood to suggest that a solution cannot be found. The problem is that with the Administration’s tactics and the Democrat’s proposals all have in common is that they are as unilateral, presumptive, and ignorant of Iraq’s realities, as was the war itself. What is required is a more regional and internationalized approach–”but that is not being actively discussed. Over a year and a half ago a rather sound proposal along these lines was offered, in different forms, by Senators Senators Chuck Hagel (R- NE) and John Kerry (D- MA). Among other points, they called for drawing Iraq’s neighbors into the creation of a standing regional security entity under the auspices of the UN or NATO (thus removing the US as the principal actor). While this approach has been largely ignored by their respective parties, a few Democratic candidates for Congress are running on such a platform right now. But unless the much anticipated report from the Baker-Hamilton study group proposes something similar, such an approach will not be adopted by the Administration.

And so we are left with an anomaly. On the one hand, this election is clearly a referendum on the war and the Administration’s handling of the war. But it is more of a “no confidence” vote than a choice between clear alternatives. Aware of the danger presented by rejection at the polls, the Administration has in the last few days ratcheted up their rhetoric, declaring shamefully and almost hysterically–”that if Democrats win “the terrorists win and America loses.”

It appears, at this point, that despite the Republican effort, Democrats will win enough seats to control at least the House of Representatives. But a cautionary note here for the Arab World. Democratic control will bring change. But it will not be as dramatic as some hope (or others fear). Actually, it will have little immediate impact on the conduct of the war. The report issued by Baker-Hamilton will potentially have more impact–”if the Administration decided to adopt their recommendations.

Where a Democratic victory will make change is in the area of accountability. Think of Reagan’s last two years and the “Iran- Contra” hearings and indictments. There will be investigations into: the failed and “forced” intelligence that was used to sell the war; the failures in pre-war planning and on the mistakes made in its execution; and the squandering of billions of dollars; etc. A Democratic Congress will also produce some degree of restraint on further unilateral adventures.

We may get some questions answered–”but no more. Make no mistake about it, come 2008, this disastrous war and its devastating consequences will still be with us, still demanding a real debate and a real solution.