There wasn’t much reason for optimism that anything whorthwhile would emerge from last week’s debate in the United States Senate on two Democratic non-binding resolutions on the Iraq War, which risked exposing the party’s divisions whilst highlighting GOP unity behind the Bush administration. Surprise! The Democrats may have finally found their voice on the issue, and the guts to go toe to toe with the Republicans in the fall; the latter, on the other hand, are now saddled with their on-record support of a deeply unpopular war and an administration that has no real strategy other than to hang in with a hope and a prayer that things will start looking up.
The first resolution, offered by Senators John Kerry and Russ Feingold, set a specific deadline for the withdrawal of nearly all conventional U.S. ground combat troops by mid-2007. This was rejected soundly. The second resolution, from Senators Jack Reed and Carl Levin, set no final deadline but called for a phased withdrawal commencing at the end of 2006. This one garnered support from all but six Senate Democrats.
Whilst most on the Republican side of the aisle did their customary best to lower the tone and substance of the debate by adhering to Rove’s tedious instructions to mention “Democrats” and “cut and run” in the same sentence as many times as humanly possible, the Democrats portrayed their own position as not only the smart strategy but one supported now by a plurality of Americans. What’s more they’ve positioned themselves well for the fall elections; no matter how many times the Republicans repeat the mantra of “cut and run” defeatism, the Democrats merely have to make this simple point: if you like what’s happening now in Iraq and want more and more and more of the same, then voting for the GOP is clearly the right choice for you.
Interestingly even as they scorned any talk of retreat and deadlines, the administration leaked a new plan from the officer in charge of the U.S. forces in Iraq, General Casey, suggesting a possible timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces starting as soon as the fall. This is interesting because the administration has always insisted that any draw-down of U.S. forces would have to be preceded by improvement on the ground there – specifically as Iraqi forces prove themselves capable of standing up for themselves, U.S. forces would stand down. Yet there was no substantive evidence of improvement on the ground, as we finished a week in which fifteen U.S. marines and soldiers were killed in combat operations – some of which were just down the road from the fortified Green Zone where the U.S. command and the Iraqi seat of government is located . And it’s interesting because just as they excoriate Democrats for a retreat and defeat mentality, they hold out the possibility of, well, retreat. Clearly, the prospect of being the party of “more of the same” holds little appeal to the GOP no matter what they say publicly.
The Iraqis themselves may come to the rescue of the Administration. The new Prime Minister has announced a proposal for a national reconciliation which will involve an amnesty for Iraqi insurgents and a timeline for an American withdrawal. I’ll believe it when I see it.
The crunch comes if by this time next year the chaos in Iraq has not abated, the government still is unable to effectively govern, scores of headless bodies continue to turn up at the morgues every morning, and the army and police remain tainted by divided loyalties and largely ineffective without significant American support.
The Bush Administration cannot afford to leave a mess behind; yet the reality is that a mess there may be for years to come. It is not likely that U.S. forces will be reduced to just 50,000 in late 2007 as envisaged in the Casey timeline if Iraq is either teetering on or has stumbled over the edge to civil war – not if Bush has anything to do with it. He knows better than anyone that his presidency will be defined by the Iraq War. The urge to hang in until he’s out of office so that he can claim he never blinked will be overwhelming. No matter what the cost in lives – American or Iraqi.
Democrats on the other hand have an opportunity to offer a choice in the fall and in 2008 of a party that is tough and smart when it comes to national security and the war on Islamist terrorism, in contrast to the tough and dumb Republicans who led us down a blind alley in Iraq. It could mean they will need to find the courage to walk away from a mess in Iraq and allow the Iraqis to sort out their own future – and without American soldiers acting as a catalyst for so much of the violence. That might turn out to be the smartest and gutsiest act of all.