Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation, and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.
For the first time in American history, Americans have gone to the polls in wartime and rejected that war. Not only that, but they’ve done so overwhelmingly. Just as the election of 1932 was a seismic repudiation of the failed economic policies of the Hoover Republicans, the election of 2006 was a landslide against the Bush Republicans and their criminally misguided war against Iraq.
Amid pre-election polls showing that voters oppose “staying the course” by margins of as much as three to one, the American people have issued a sweeping mandate to the U.S. government: Get out of Iraq.
How that mandate is handled by Democrats and Republicans is yet to be resolved. And both energized Democrats and chastened, mainstream Republicans who want to change course in Iraq will confront a stubborn, blinkered president who, for the next two years, is still the commander-in-chief, and a giant stone Sphinx of a vice president, who has already declared that “it doesn’t matter” what voters think. “We've got the basic strategy right,” Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News over the weekend.
It may not be popular with the public—it doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right.
So the question is: In the face of an electoral sandstorm of Biblical proportions, how long can Bush and Cheney continue to do “what we’re doing”? Let’s look at five forces arrayed against them: the Democrats, the Republicans, the military, the U.S. bureaucracy and the Iraqi resistance.
First, the Democrats. It would appear, from their initial post-election reactions, that some Democrats get it. “We cannot continue down this catastrophic path,” said Nancy Pelosi, who will be speaker of the House. “And so we say to the president, ‘Mr. President, we need a new direction in Iraq. Let us work together to find a solution to the war in Iraq.’” But the Democrats have shown themselves to be lily-livered vacillators on Iraq: most of them voted for the war (and for the Patriot Act), and their ranks are shot though with pro-war right-wingers, not to mention the revived neocon Joe Lieberman. But, if they intend to retain or expand their solid majority in the House and their potential razor-thin, but all-important majority in the Senate in 2008 without incurring the wrath of the American majority opposed to the war, the Democrats can’t blow it. That will mean that they must become a resonant echo chamber for the anti-war voice of the American voter, who will demand nothing less. The Democrats must thunder from the pulpit, threatening to rain down hellfire, hail and brimstone on Republicans who want to stay the course—while scrutinizing every Pentagon budget request and holding investigative hearings into war crimes, abuses, cost overruns and mismanagement. Expect every general who’s ever called for Donald Rumsfeld’s scalp to headline a House or Senate hearing. And just wait ‘til the new leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees get their hands on those long-suppressed files on the lies that got us into war in 2003.
Second, the Republicans. On the eve of the election, Senator Joe Biden, the Democrat from Delaware, said that a dozen Republican senators had approached him to say that it was time to change course in Iraq. In fact, most mainstream Republicans had long ago written off the 2006 elections, but they are in full panic mode about 2008. If the war in Iraq is still raging in the summer of 2008 and the GOP runs a pro-war candidate (think John McCain), the party will suffer yet another landslide loss. That’s precisely why Representative Frank Wolf and Senator John Warner, both Republicans from Virginia, created the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker. The ISG report is expected in January, and it’s likely to call for what amounts to a withdrawal from Iraq. Expect Republicans to nod their heads sagely and praise Baker’s wisdom. Even more than the Democrats, it will be Republicans—contemplating the end of their political lives two years from now—who will demand an end to the war.
Third, the military. If the 2006 election is the first time that a war has ever been rejected by voters, the revolt of the generals is an unprecedented mutiny by flag officers against the commander-in-chief and the secretary of defense. The military, it should be noted, was mostly against the war in Iraq in 2002-2003, and its opposition has only grown as the war became a charnel house. Not only generals, but the staid Army Times has called for Rummy’s head. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who channels the Joint Chiefs of Staff and who has called for an immediate pullout from Iraq, plans to challenge pro-war Representative Steny Hoyer for the top Democratic post in the House. Strained to the breaking point, forced to recruit from the bottom of the barrel, the U.S. armed forces will continue to fight Bush’s war—but its leaders will make it unmistakably clear that they do not want to.
Fourth, the U.S. bureaucracy. The State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, in particular, were mostly bitterly opposed to the war in Iraq from the outset, too. Expect both to feel vindicated and empowered. The State Department can begin maneuvering to mend fences with our allies, to convince Russia and China that we no longer intend to push them out of the Persian Gulf, to open lines of communication with Syria and Iran. And the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community can mobilize its resources to provide ever-more convincing rationales why the Iraq war can’t be won. First up: the soon-to-be-released National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the first one produced since 2002. That’s being overseen by Thomas Fingar, formerly of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research who is now stationed at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Next up: the ouster of neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, the manipulative pro-consul in Baghdad, and his replacement by Ryan Crocker, a long-time Arabist who recently served as U.S. ambassador to Syria.
And finally, the Iraqi resistance. Without the emergence of the nationalist resistance in Iraq in the fall of 2003, there would have been no war, no antiwar movement and no landslide of 2006. Should Democrats, Republicans, generals or bureaucrats get cold feet about leaving Iraq, they’d better realize: Iraq’s insurgency isn’t going away until the last American soldier leaves Iraq.
Is this enough to shatter the stone Sphinx and get President Bush to leave Iraq? I don’t know. Short of an outright act of defiance by the Democrats, such as cutting off funds for the war, the president can stand firm. He says he will, and he might. We’ve already sunk a trillion dollars into his illegal war of aggression, and it has cost thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi ones. It’s entirely possible that a thousand more Americans, and a few hundred thousand more Iraqis, will die between now and November 2008. If so, we can mourn them as we go to the polls to finish the job we started yesterday.