Iraq: The Democrats' Dilemma
A master narrative, once formed in the collective mind of the mainstream media, becomes impervious to interference from inconvenient reality. Today the political narrative demands that the Democrats be derided for their "disarray." Yes, George W. Bush is the most unpopular President since Nixon in the days before his forced resignation. In the most recent AP/Ipsos poll, nearly 70 percent of those questioned believe that the country is on the wrong track. The Bush domestic agenda is politically dead, and his Iraq adventure looks increasingly like it contains the seeds of a regional Armageddon. Yet according to the accepted story line, none of that matters. The Democrats' disarray on how to handle the war dominates the reporting of Adam Nagourney and Matt Bai in the New York Times, of Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington in the Washington Post, of Joe Klein in Time, of the smart boys who write ABC News's "The Note" and Slate, along with that of virtually everyone else charged with reporting on the topic.
Personally, I have a hard time understanding why, if it was the Administration that created the Iraq quagmire with its toxic combination of mendacity, incompetence and ideological obsession, it is somehow the responsibility of powerless Democrats to solve it. Given the right wing's stranglehold on both the political process and public discourse, Democrats cannot hope to address this problem or even have their public proposals treated fairly. Why then should they make themselves politically vulnerable by offering up a target for Rove and O'Reilly to torture, twist and otherwise pervert for the purpose of political assassination both in 2006 and again in 2008?
What's more, the Iraq situation is deteriorating so rapidly, it is impossible to imagine what will face a Democratic presidential candidate when a genuine plan does become obligatory. Until then, all a potential nominee can do is foreclose future options. Consider 2002. Democrats were desperate to remove the question of Iraq from the agenda in order to fight the election on domestic issues, where they retained their traditional polling advantages. Endangered Southern Dems were begging the Congressional leadership not to put the party out front against Bush on Iraq, lest it open up avenues for a Rovian assault on their patriotism and support for the military.
As a result, John Kerry, who began with a genuinely antiwar critique of Bush's folly, was put in the position of having to find a way to support it, lest he compromise his ability to secure the support of his colleagues for his presidential candidacy two years later. According to sources I trust, Kerry actually gave an impassioned speech against the war to an internal Democratic gathering before reversing himself and backing it, albeit in an entirely incoherent fashion. The net result proved to be a disaster, for Kerry and the country, when his various contradictory statements were easily employed to paint the Democratic candidate as indecisive and untrustworthy. (And of course the party's timidity on the war vote did little to protect vulnerable officeholders, making the entire exercise one of futility.)
Many on the left are demanding that the Democrats adopt an "out now" policy toward Iraq, but this, too, misunderstands the party's political problem. First off, it's not practical. Even if the leadership were to sign on to an out-now strategy, it has no enforcement mechanism to insure the compliance of those who disagree. The effect would undoubtedly be to reinforce the "disarray/these people can't be trusted to protect us" narrative that remains the Democrats' Achilles' heel. What's more, despite growing public support, a call for withdrawal would be treated in the conservative punditocracy as the equivalent of a call to "cut and run," and hence would open the entire "weak on defense" Pandora's box that almost always dooms Democrats in national elections. And for what? Does anyone truly believe that if the Democratic leadership calls for Bush to quit Iraq, it will actually happen?
Nevertheless, it's an awful situation, and all attempts to address it will be fraught with risk. A Democratic refusal to adopt a single position on Iraq collides, strategically, not only with growing dissatisfaction and impatience with the failed Bush strategy there but also with the need for Democrats to nationalize the 2006 election in order to focus attention on Republican incompetence, corruption and ideological extremism. If the model is Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America," then the party needs to be able to say something, collectively, about Iraq that sounds like more than just pablum. When, at a Washington dinner sponsored by the Third Way organization not long ago, I asked DNC chair Howard Dean about this conundrum, he replied that the concept of a strategic redeployment of US troops could provide the basis for such a position and said he has been working to build a consensus around it "from Murtha to Biden." (We note for the record that no Democratic consensus can include Joe Lieberman, who has been rapidly moving to the right even of most Republicans.)
Dean may be correct. As Russell Feingold recently noted, fully forty senators united around an anti-White House resolution back in November demanding "that the president should offer to Congress and the American public an idea of when our military mission in Iraq can come to an end and our brave men and women in uniform can return home." The Republicans panicked and tried to force a vote designed to embarrass the opposition, which did not work. The Democrats' momentum was lost, however, when John Murtha changed the subject to immediate withdrawal and reopened the party's vulnerable flanks. But "redeployment" is not "withdrawal." And Democrats who require more detailed plans to give definition to these terms can begin with those put forth by Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, and more recently by the realist foreign policy scholar Barry Posen in a recent symposium in Boston Review.
It's an imperfect solution at best, but we long ago lost the luxury of allowing an imaginary "best" to be the enemy of the "not quite as horrible." Just look at Iraq...