A Fourth in Iraq Poses Dilemma for Both Parties

Fourths in Iraq

July 4, 2003:

American troops have been in Baghdad for three months. Initial celebrations of liberation from the Baathist dictatorship have been followed by widespread looting and lawlessness. Efforts to find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction have proven futile, and people back home are already asking what the Bush administration really knew when it made its case for war to the Congress and the United Nations.

July 4, 2004:

Saddam Hussein has been captured, but a surprisingly strong insurgency continues. Abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison has enraged the Arab world. Iraq has been declared sovereign, but forming an Iraqi government is painfully slow going. The 9/11 Commission has reported it found no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida prior to the terror attacks on New York and Washington. The number of Americans killed is nearing 1,000, with many times that number wounded.

July 4, 2005:

President Bush has been re-elected; his second term is turning out to be more difficult than imagined. Congress has become resistant to his leadership, and his public support is softening — largely because of "Iraq fatigue."

July 4, 2006:

Iraq now has a permanent constitution, ratified by Iraqi voters, and a government chosen by popular ballot. The individual Cabinet ministers have at last been named and approved. The infamous leader of al-Qaida in Iraq is dead. But car bombs and suicide bombers continue in the cities, some among the deadliest in the war. Hundreds die in sectarian fighting and deadly reprisals. The main fear is now of all-out civil war between the Sunni and Shiite factions. Several U.S. soldiers have been arrested and charged in connection with alleged atrocities against Iraqi civilians. More than 2,500 Americans have been killed, more than 18,000 wounded.

— Ron Elving

This is the fourth Fourth of July that American troops have marked in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

How many more such Fourths will there be? The question hangs over American politics for this year and beyond. And it presents a trap for both of the major parties.

The dilemma for Democrats is the most immediate and obvious. As the opposition party in a time of unpopular war, they are called upon to resist an open-ended commitment to that war. Some of their most committed partisans even think that setting a timetable for withdrawal is too complicit, that only an immediate disengagement will do.

At the same time, elected Democrats and party professionals know that opposing any president in wartime is fraught with risk for the party's future. This is true even when the war itself seems futile and counterproductive, and when polls show most Americans think the war was a mistake.

By representing both these poles of opinion, and the many points in between, the Democrats reinforce their image as a divided party, uncertain of its moorings.

This common impression of the Democrats is heightened by contrast with the Republicans. While many individual Republicans may have deep misgivings about the war, its justification and its future direction, they are almost all united in the conviction that they must stay the course. No matter how much they go their own way on other issues, they must look to their leader in the White House when it comes to national security.

To reverse themselves now would confirm every criticism leveled at Republicans since before the war began. Worse yet, it would invite bitterness at their rhetoric about completing the mission to honor those who have already died for it. So they are unified going forward, if only because they have no choice.

But while the Republican path is clearer, it is no less hazardous. If the new government in Iraq proves no better than its predecessor at restraining violence, if civil strife escalates, President Bush and his party may be held to account in November, and in 2008. In fact, such a reversal might generate the kind of wave election experts say could cost the GOP its control of Congress.

To guard against that, the Republicans appear to have adopted a variation on the strategy Richard Nixon used to get out of Vietnam 35 years ago. Stuck with an apparently unwinnable war when he became president in 1969, Nixon combined bombing campaigns and other forms of escalation with a gradual reduction of the U.S. troop commitment. It was called "Vietnamization," and it allowed Nixon to scale back the draft dramatically and lower U.S. casualty levels steadily. He was safe from any charge of "cut and run," of course, because the opposition Democrats were primarily in favor of withdrawing faster — even immediately. Nixon defeated an anti-war Democrat to win re-election in 1972, carrying 49 states.

Now the same formula returns with a different name: "stand-up-stand-down," the president's oft-repeated phrase for the Iraqis taking over their own security. And just last month, right after Republicans shot down Democrats' withdrawal proposals in Congress, the U.S. command in Baghdad began talking about sending home two U.S. combat brigades in September.

Sound familiar?

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