The Iraq War Could Be the GOP's Vietnam The war in Iraq could do to Republicans what the war in Vietnam did to Democrats. It is threatening to divide them -- not just for one or two election cycles but for a generation or more.

The Iraq War Could Be the GOP's Vietnam

President Bush heads to speak with reporters after a Dec. 11 meeting with State Department officials. He is followed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Bush heads to speak with reporters after a Dec. 11 meeting with State Department officials. He is followed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The war in Iraq is threatening to do to Republicans what the war in Vietnam did to Democrats. It is threatening to divide them -- not just for one or two election cycles but for a generation or more.

That is the signal in the speech that Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon has given on the floor of the U.S. Senate, calling the current policy in Iraq absurd and possibly criminal.

Smith's speech may have been more a personal cris de coeur than a policy prescription, but it struck a nerve among the strongest supporters of the mission in Iraq. If you read the conservative press and blogosphere, watch Fox News or listen to talk radio, you know Smith is being vilified almost as severely as the "Iraq Surrender Group" (the preferred putdown for the Iraq Study Group, which issued its downbeat report on the war last week.)

Congress and others hoped the ISG would provide a bipartisan escape hatch from the Iraqi conundrum, but its report has prompted angry denunciations on the right. Perhaps the prospects for victory in Iraq really look that much better to conservative opinion-makers than to the members of the ISG. Or it may be that admitting error or defeat remains unacceptable to those who have denied the possibility of either.

When a very Republican Congress created the Iraq Study Group in March, the presumption was that pairing five well-known Republicans with five well-known Democrats would provide substantial political cover for both sides. This seemed doubly reinforced on the Republican side, where the cast included such stalwarts as Ed Meese, a bulwark of conservatism in the cabinet of Ronald Reagan, and Robert Gates, a renowned anti-communist who was once director of the CIA.

But perhaps an avid student of conservative activism could have foreseen its response to the ISG. Start with a closer reading of the reputations of the other three Republicans on the panel. One was Alan Simpson, a former senator from Wyoming notorious for saying what he thought and for bucking party ideology (most notably on abortion). Another panel member was Sandra Day O'Connor, the retired Supreme Court justice. Appointed by Reagan, she disappointed many conservatives by becoming a swing vote on key issues.

Least trustworthy of all, from a certain perspective, was the ISG cochairman and leading spokesman, James A. Baker III. While Baker was once Reagan's chief of staff and a cabinet member in both the Reagan and the first Bush administrations, conservative activists still regard him as a moderating influence in both those administrations. Democrats may think of Baker as the man who engineered George W. Bush's triumph in the Florida voting controversies of 2000, but on the right he stands accused of valuing compromise over victory.

Meanwhile, at the current Bush White House, clear signs suggest the storm of anti-ISG sentiment has been heard and heeded. This week, the president is visiting the State Department and the Pentagon, closeting himself with generals and reaching out to elements of the government in Iraq. Is this about vetting the ISG report? Not at all, says White House spokesman Tony Snow, who adds that when the president met with top officials at State, the ISG was not on the agenda.

And as the president goes to the Pentagon for yet another policy review, the assembled worthies will be led by none other than Donald Rumsfeld, the departing secretary of defense most associated with everything that has transpired in Iraq since March 2003.

All this suggests that whatever message voters sent last month -- or that Jim Baker intended to send or that Sen. Smith of Oregon tried to send -- this White House continues to believe its way is right. And it believes history will concur.

The current situation evokes the events of four decades ago, which many Americans still vividly recall. The global challenge facing the United States then was communism, and the focus was the relatively small, divided country of Vietnam.

President Lyndon B. Johnson was facing a presidential election in 1964. Fearing that Republican nominee Barry Goldwater would accuse him of weakness in Vietnam, Johnson manipulated Congress into an escalation of the war. The crisis mood helped him win more than 60 percent of the popular vote that fall but committed him to a course he would come to regret.

By 1966, the war in Vietnam was a frustrating puzzle to most Americans. That November, the elections pared back the huge congressional majorities Democrats had won in 1964. And two years later, divisions over the war tore "the party of government" apart. The Democratic convention was a scene of chaos and even street fighting. In the fall, the White House fell to Richard M. Nixon, the Democrats' worst nightmare.

Four decades later, we are replaying at least some elements of this sequence. Popular reaction to the terror attacks of Sept. 11 carried President Bush's GOP to victory in the fall of 2002. Fear and longing for fuller revenge fueled the invasion of Iraq four months later. Confidence in that mission stretched through to the elections of 2004, giving President Bush a second term and increasing Republican margins in the House and Senate. Elections in Iraq in 2005 raised hopes that democracy and stability would take root.

But in the past year, rising sectarian violence has replaced the relatively tidy scenario of insurgency. The puzzle has grown more complicated by the month -- and more deadly. It is difficult to know for whom the U.S. forces are really fighting.

This fall we have had an election expressing popular doubts about the mission in Iraq. Like the election of 1966, it offers a warning to the White House of what could come in the next national election two years on.