The GOP's Iraq Problem
"It's clear by now that President Bush is going to let his allies on the Hill twist in the wind," says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has informally advised General Petraeus. "The Administration's vote-counting tells them that they're not going to lose enough Republicans to allow Congress to override a veto."
Inside the White House, the worry about 2008 seems not to have penetrated Bush's inner circle. The political people-- from former White House politics czar Karl Rove, who quit in August, on down--don't have much input into the President's national security decisions. "I've talked to guys who are high-ranking inside the White House, but they're constantly being told, This isn't your department," says Grover Norquist, the right-wing activist who keeps close tabs on Republican politics. "Part of the problem is, they're not allowed to have an opinion on this. Only the experts are allowed to have opinions."
Doug Bandow, a libertarian-conservative foreign policy expert and former aide to President Reagan, says that neither Bush nor Cheney will be moved by politics when it comes to Iraq. "We see a stubbornness in the President that is virtually unique. What does he care about the party's future? He parachuted into politics on his father's coattails. He's never been much of a party guy, and I think he could care less," says Bandow. "Cheney is more of a Republican, and he might be expected to be more concerned about politics and the party's future. But he's at the end of his career, and he just might be ready to bring the whole house down on top of them if that's what it takes." Adds Larry Wilkerson, who was a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, "Cheney's always been an ultra-nationalist cowboy from Wyoming, and he's the kind of guy who would indeed sacrifice the party for what he sees as America's best interests."
Signs of the Republican Party's distress over Iraq began to emerge even before the 2006 election. Early that year a phalanx of moderate and mainstream Republicans, led by Representative Frank Wolf and quietly backed by Senator John Warner, then chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, put together the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton. The task force assembled a bipartisan plan to begin winding down the war, and many in the GOP hoped that Bush would embrace it. But Bush, backed by Cheney and a team of ideologues from the American Enterprise Institute, announced the surge, escalating the war instead.
Checkmated, some Republicans on Capitol Hill gradually began to express their doubts publicly. One by one, with one eye on the war and the other on the 2008 elections, prominent Republican senators began to break with the President--first Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, then Gordon Smith of Oregon and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and finally George Voinovich of Ohio, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Dick Lugar of Indiana. Vulnerable senators up for re-election in '08, such as Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John Sununu of New Hampshire, began to express concern. And a handful of key GOP senators signed on to a bipartisan bill to enact into law the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Robert Bennett of Utah and, surprisingly, minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Feeling heat from his constituents, and under pressure from an organized antiwar effort led by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, McConnell began singing loudly in the waiting-for-Petraeus chorus, suggesting--wrongly, it turns out--that perhaps the Bush Administration would change course come September. "I anticipate that we will probably be going in a different direction in some way in Iraq, and it will be interesting to see what the Administration chooses to do," said McConnell in June.
Another Republican senator who sounded off was North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole, also up for re-election in 2008. With little fanfare, she issued a statement raising concern over the Administration's July interim report on the surge, in which the White House admitted that almost none of the benchmarks had been met thus far. "Our commitment in Iraq is not indefinite, nor should the Iraqi government perceive it to be," said Dole. "It is my firm hope and belief that we can start bringing our troops home in 2008." During General Petraeus's appearance before the Armed Services Committee in September, Dole pointedly declared that she would now support "what some have called action-forcing measures."
But during the spring and summer, when forced to vote, only a tiny handful of Republicans turned their unhappiness with the Administration's Iraq policy into votes to end the war. Just four GOP senators--Hagel, Smith, Snowe and Collins--voted in favor of a bill to set a timetable for withdrawal, along with only four GOP House members. With Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker having testified, the Democrats intend to call the Republicans' bluff. "All these people saying September is the time, they're going to have to belly up to the bar and decide how to vote," said majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
On both sides of the aisle there is pessimism that enough Republicans will break with the White House to make a difference. The mainstream Democratic legislative vehicles for ending the war are those proposed by Carl Levin and Jack Reed in the Senate and David Obey and Jim McGovern in the House. These measures call for the withdrawal of US forces to begin within 120 days of passage, to be completed by April 30, 2008, with a residual American force to combat Al Qaeda, train Iraqi forces and protect US personnel. "I don't think there's a chance of getting another eight to ten Republicans on Levin-Reed," says a top Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. (Last time around, in mid-July, with four Republican votes, the Democrats mustered a total of fifty-two votes for the bill. They need sixty to overcome a filibuster and sixty-seven to override a veto.)
Conservative Republicans unhappy with Bush's Iraq policy, from libertarians to mainstream fiscal conservatives to right-wing activists like Norquist, aren't optimistic that House and Senate Republicans will break with Bush's war policy. "In the meetings I've attended, they're circling the wagons," says Mike Ostrolenk, founder of a new conservative defense think tank, the American Conservative Defense Alliance, established in part to create an alternative to the neoconservatives on foreign policy. "They get very defensive on the question of supporting the President's policy, and they discount as oddballs the Republicans who've broken with that policy."
Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway puts it this way: "There is this feeling that to abandon the White House is to shack up with the Democrats, that there is no 'third way.' And so leaving Bush is like joining up with the enemy."