Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
If President George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove are worried that they have a losing political hand at home when it comes to Iraq, it isn’t evident from this week’s news. Less than five months before the November elections, a vote that will be a referendum on Bush’s imperial venture in Iraq, the president laid down his final marker on Iraq for 2006. The administration’s electoral strategy is to point proudly to Bush’s criminal mayhem in that war-battered country and challenge voters to endorse it. His message to antiwar Democrats and to the solid majority of voters opposed to the war? Bring ‘em on!
Although polls show that a solid majority of American voters oppose the war and believe that the 2003 invasion was a mistake, it looks unlikely that the loyal opposition – the Democrats – will come up with a successful counter-strategy.
Despite the emergence of a hardy band of antiwar Democrats calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq – the latest, most active convert being Sen. John Kerry – it seems clear that the Democrats are hopelessly divided. So far, at least, they’ve refused to “nationalize” the congressional elections around the only issue that matters, Iraq. And, while many congressional Democrats and other party officials are prepared to argue that the war itself was a mistake, the bulk of the party’s elite is dithering over the only truly important issue: get out or stay? The argument that appears to have carried the day among top Democrats is that the United States has a moral obligation to stay in Iraq. Personally, I’d like to see those Democrats – including Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Steny Hoyer, and Joe Lieberman, along with the Democratic Leadership Council and the editors of The New Republic – go to Haditha and say that.
In speeches and interviews with reporters, Karl Rove – freed from the shadow of an indictment in the Valerie Plame leak – is on a two-fisted offensive. Speaking in New Hampshire, Rove gave a chilling preview of the Republican strategy for November. He blasted Kerry, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, and other Dems who’ve called for getting out of Iraq. “They may be with you for the first shots. But they’re not going to be with you for the tough battles,” said Rove. “When it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party’s old pattern of cutting and running. … If Murtha had his way, American troops would have been gone by the end of April, and we wouldn’t have gotten Zarqawi.” You can already see many Democrats cringing. You can see them asking their campaign consultants and pollsters: Can we talk about immigration instead? The environment? Health care?
Meanwhile, the contours of the Bush’s administration’s plans for Iraq are coming more sharply into focus. According to The New York Times, at the all-hands-on-deck cabinet meeting on Camp David on Monday, the administration let slip plans to keep as many as 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for years or decades to come. There are rumors that massive new military offensives are being planned for Baghdad and Ramadi. And there are more reliable reports about the possibility of an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq. At a speech in Washington on Monday, Qubad Talabani, the son of the Iraqi president and the representative of the Kurdish region to the United States, said that the Kurds in Iraq have been actively engaged in discussions with the Bush administration about stationing U.S. troops in Iraq on a permanent basis.
To drive the point home, the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives has scheduled an all-day debate on Iraq for Thursday. After resisting the idea for some time, according to Democratic sources on the Hill, the GOP leaders apparently believe that the time is right for a rough-and-tumble debate on Iraq. And no doubt they will get what they want, namely, the spectacle of antiwar Democrats such as Murtha, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Pete Stark, Lynn Woolsey, and Barbara Lee of California, and even minority leader Nancy Pelosi engaged in a less than harmonious debate with the party’s stay-the-course faction. The Republicans intend to cast Iraq as the central front in Bush’s “global war on terror.”
A preview of that drama played out at the Take Back America conference in Washington, sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future, where Kerry was cheered and Hillary booed (amid hisses and catcalls to “bring them home”). It’s one more sign that the apparatus of Bill and Hillary Clinton, which holds together the center of the party, simply isn’t willing to challenge Bush on Iraq, Iran or the war on terrorism.
Kerry, in an effort to turn the tables on Republicans, introduced a resolution in the Senate this week calling for the immediate withdrawal of nearly all U.S. forces in Iraq. The plan, according to the senator’s website , calls for “the redeployment of U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of 2006. Only U.S. troops essential to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces would remain.” Kerry also calls for the internationalization of the conflict:
The President [must] convene a summit that includes the leaders of the new Iraqi government, leaders of the governments of each country bordering Iraq, representatives of the Arab League, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, representatives of the European Union, and leaders of the governments of each permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to reach a comprehensive political agreement for Iraq that addresses fundamental issues including federalism, oil revenues, the militias, security guarantees, reconstruction, economic assistance and border security.
Kerry’s got the right idea. My guess is that if Kerry’s plan were put forward to voters as the core of the Democratic Party’s 2006 election platform, the Republicans would be routed. Not only is that the smart thing to do politically, but it’s the moral thing to do as well. The U.S. presence in Iraq has become an unspeakable moral blot, the scene of war crimes, devastation and a clumsy (and as yet unresolved) effort to consolidate the U.S. empire in southwest Asia. The issue is not whether the war is “winnable.” The issue is that America has no business winning it. Imperial wars can be won. But they don’t deserve to be won.
Progressive and antiwar Democrats and activists can take comfort in the fact that the American public is slowly coming around to the notion that the war in Iraq is wrong. The endless bad news from Iraq, including mounting U.S. casualties and the horrific toll that the war is taking among Iraqis, will continue through November and beyond. The war crimes of Haditha will be revealed for all the world to see in black and white, when the Pentagon finally releases the full account of that cold-blooded massacre. The supposed victory achieved with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi will prove ephemeral. And the government of Green Zone puppets under King Khalilzad will soon prove to be as ineffectual as the past so-called “governments” of Iraq.
But Rove might be right if he believes that the divided Democrats at home will allow the administration to escape once again with a narrow victory in 2006. The Democrats can spin the San Diego special election on June 6 any way they like, but the fact is that a Republican right-winger won a hotly contested seat in a race in which the predicted surge of energized, anti-Bush Democrats didn’t materialize. A lot more work needs to be done, and November is not that far away.