THE SUMMER’S POLLS show that one-third of Americans favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and nearly two-thirds support withdrawal within the next year. In the face of such numbers, the conventional wisdom predicts disaster at the polls for Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. As conservative insider Grover Norquist put it recently: “If Iraq is in the rearview mirror in the ’06 elections, the Republicans will do fine. But if it’s still in the windshield, there are problems.”
Is this good news for Democrats? Maybe, but a growing disconnect between the party’s establishment hawks and an increasingly antiwar base could foretell an even bigger crackup on the Democratic than the Republican side. So far, none of the best known faces of the Democratic Party -- Hillary Clinton, say, or Joe Biden, or John Kerry, all of whom supported the war -- have joined those clamoring for an end to the fighting. In fact, the foreign policy establishment of the Democratic Party is lined up with President Bush in favor of “staying the course.”
Needless to say, an internecine war between its hawks and doves is the last thing the beleaguered Democratic Party needs. You can be sure that Karl Rove would do his best to hammer such a wedge straight through the heart of the party come election time. So both Democratic factions would be well-advised to do some serious thinking before their disagreements get out of hand.
For their part, members of the antiwar left have an easy role: They should continue to push establishment Democrats to support withdrawal from Iraq, but they should also make it clear that no one will be punished for doing so, regardless of their past support for the war. However angry they are, doves can best serve their cause by not demanding tortured explanations and tearful apologies. A change in position should be enough.
The hawks have a much harder job. They’re the ones who need to publicly change their position, an act that carries the risk of being tarred forever with the dreaded label that killed Kerry’s presidential campaign: “flip-flopper.” Besides, mainstream Democratic politicians and their advisors genuinely think immediate withdrawal is a bad idea that likely would plunge Iraq into a savage civil war.
And then there’s this: Democrats with long memories know perfectly well that similar demands for withdrawal during the Vietnam War wrecked the party’s reputation on national security issues for a generation. The American public tended to associate Democratic doubts with the nation’s first-ever military defeat, and regardless of whether that conclusion was fair or not, no one is eager to repeat it.
What’s a mainstream Democrat to do? Have the courage to break ranks and advocate the course that’s probably the most sensible anyway: a gradual, phased withdrawal based on specified interim goals and a hard end-date two years from now. After all, in December 2007 we will have been in Iraq for nearly five years, and the plain reality is that by then we’ll either leave because we’ve won or we’ll leave because it’s clear that we can’t. So why not say so?
There are many reasons such a public stance makes sense. First, a firm deadline would concentrate the minds of Iraqi politicians and force them to take the training of their own security forces more seriously. This is the most critical part of any drawdown plan because, as Rand Corp. counterinsurgency expert Nora Bensahel wrote recently: “The presence of outside forces often adds fuel to the fire of the insurgents’ cause. Only local residents possess the knowledge and determination needed to prevail.”
Second, there’s good reason to think the insurgency is at least partly motivated by a belief that Washington plans to occupy Iraq forever. As Thamir Adhami, a spokesman for Iraq’s ministry of foreign affairs, told the New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman last year, the United States needs to set a date for withdrawal in order to help pull the fangs of the insurgency. “I tend to believe that [you need] to give them at least a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Third, military recruitment is in serious trouble, and it’s unlikely that we can maintain our current troop levels in Iraq much past 2006 anyway. Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey put it colorfully during testimony before the Senate two months ago: “This thing, the wheels are coming off it.” A planned withdrawal allows commanders on the ground to make realistic troop plans now instead of being forced into them later.
None of this means abandoning Iraq to the fates. As the U.S. experience in Germany and Japan -- and, more recently, Kosovo and Afghanistan -- proves, postwar aid can promote stability and democracy in the aftermath of conflicts, which means we have every reason to be generous in providing reconstruction assistance of all kinds to the Iraqis after we leave.
For any Democrat who has been on the record for the last two years as supporting the war in Iraq, advocating withdrawal will take guts. But being the first liberal hawk to seriously propose such a solution would also carry some rewards: The antiwar left would finally have someone to rally around, and the Bush administration would finally have some serious competition.
Who will be the first to do it?