Can the Democrats Make the Case Against War?

In the past week, smiles came easily to Republicans while Democrats were left fidgeting.

The counter-offensive President George W. Bush started in early November is working. The Democrats’ efforts to talk about the failures of the president’s war policies are too often sidetracked, simply being reduced to a discussion about whether there should there be a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. Without articulating a coherent strategy, the Democrats are vulnerable to charges of cowardice and an unwillingness to see things through.

Democratic anxieties were heightened by new polls showing that the decline in Bush’s support may have bottomed, and his popularity is on the upswing, even if only marginally for now. Undoubtedly, a significant rise in the stock market after mid-October helped the president. The timing of the market change is an answered prayer. As the 2006 election campaign starts, Bush may be rising in the polls. During the past 18 months, Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved from a comparable low to his landslide reelection victory. The poll results, if sustained in the coming months, are very good news for the GOP.

Unless the Democrats present a new policy they will be unable to answer Republican attacks. Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean has been making this point, but he has also embarrassed himself and his Party.

“The idea we’re going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong,” Dean told a San Antonio radio station. Republicans greeted this remark with undisguised glee. Such mistakes are trumpeted by Republicans in the hopes of demoralizing Democrats. Congressional Democrats from the red states that voted for Bush were exceedingly annoyed and reminded Dean that he had agreed not to talk about the war once he became DNC chairman. Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor of New York State, retorted that Dean is “flat out dead wrong. Of course we can win that war.”

The former Vermont governor should have made an equally important political point—when Republicans say “no timetable,” they mean, U.S. troops should stay as long as the Bush administration believes it necessary.

Dean’s overall message made sense.

“I’m with Jack Murtha on this,” he told CNN. “We need a strategic redeployment of our troops. We need to bring the 50,000 guard troops home in the next six months. They don’t belong there in the first place. We need a special task force of anti-terrorist troops stationed in the Middle East because we are going to have to deal with [Abu Musab] Zarqawi for a long time. We need 20,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, not in Iraq. It’s time to change our strategy and the Democrats have a strategy.”

That approach, broadly conceived, puts congressional Democrats where they like to be—at some distance from the vocal peace forces in the Democratic Party base while able to remain critical of the Republicans. The strategy specifies that the military role is limited, but real. For example, troops would return to Iraq if terrorist training camps were opened. The Democratic strategy also calls for increased military strength in Afghanistan where religious zealots are making a comeback. It shows that the United States can wage war on two fronts, and sustain the real battle against worldwide terrorism. One reason for opposing the Iraq war is that it ties up U.S. forces and makes it impossible to challenge Iran or North Korea. The Democrats not only have an alternative strategy, they have a better strategy, but one that gives the military a more active role than some peace groups want.

Democrats believe the U.S. will restore its standing in the international community if American interventions are directed at bona fide terrorist targets. This Democratic strategy also divides Republican realists from the Bushie diehards. The Democrats can complain about mission creep in the president’s strategy when war aims grow even as military efforts falter. In fact, the Democrats can reach out to rank-and-file Republicans.

The strategy acknowledges real U.S. achievements in a manner that should be congenial to some Republicans. As Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief, has argued: “Even if we still disagree about whether it was worth the costs, the war has brought Saddam Hussein to justice for crimes against humanity” Other accomplishments include ending the possibility of an Iraqi military threat in the region. Bush’s false statements about weapons of mass destruction are in fact a rationale for withdrawal—the peace is no longer, nor was it ever, threatened by these weapons. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. has “given Iraqis a chance to create a non-totalitarian government, hold elections and adopt a constitution enshrining human rights.” Clarke noted.

Many Americans from both parties would agree with this analysis, but only the Democrats would bring some troops home.

There is also, however, a somber reality that the Democrats must face and even use to their political advantage. Whether, the U.S. draws down troops now or in seven years, it will leave a chaotic country. The choice is not between disorder now and tranquility later, but rather one between near-chaos now and near-chaos later. As long as the United States remains in Iraq, Iraqis will see the U.S. as the cause of Iraq’s problems. A pullback of U.S. forces to Kuwait would make it harder to argue that Iraqi public works projects are cooperation with the occupiers. Leaders who actually get things done may become popular. The task of reconciling warring factions is endlessly complicated by the U.S. presence. A U.S. withdrawal is a warning that each faction in Iraq must learn to live with each other—or face the consequences on their own.

The Democrats, among them, have an alternative policy. What they haven’t found is a credible spokesperson. Hillary Clinton is a logical choice, but she is declining the role, preferring to punt rather than directly answer questions. She could change. Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, is articulate and could persuasively make the points, but he is opposed to immediate withdrawal. However in January, he will make his first trip to Iraq, so a change in his thinking might be possible in the near term. Mark Warner, the former governor of Virginia and a conservative, would move to the front ranks of Democratic candidates in 2008 if he chose to make a Democratic alternative his issue, but I have seen no reports suggesting he is a dove. But until the Democrats find a spokesperson or two, the party’s alternative will be difficult to understand.

The Republicans can shoot themselves in the foot or they can steal the Democrat’s thunder. Bush may expand the war into Syria or Iran. Or, he may take the issue away from the Democrats by accepting Pentagon arguments that U.S. troops cannot have their tour of duty extended for a third time. Should the president start a major troop withdrawal in 2006, it might leave the Democrats with a war but without an issue.