The improved security situation in Iraq has exposed the ugly underbelly of the Democratic Party's lame opposition to the war in Iraq. It remains to be seen whether or not the uneasy stability taking hold in Iraq will boost the GOP's chances at the polls next November.
Since 2003, the central theme of the Democrats' opposition to the war was that it was mismanaged, that the Bush administration didn't send enough troops to do the job, and that big mistakes were made. All true. But few Democrats, except for the hardy band of progressives, denounced the war for what it was: an illegal war of aggression against a country that represented no threat to the United States.
Many Democrats, including the leading ones running for president, have based their opposition to the war on the notion that U.S. forces are stuck in the middle of a civil war between Iraqi factions determined to destroy each other. It's an unwinnable war, and we have to leave, they say. Far less often do we hear that the war in Iraq was a naked attempt by the United States to plant its flag at the heart of the world's oil region. Rarely do the Democrats explain - as General Wesley Clark now does, explicitly - that the war in Iraq was only the first of seven wars and regime change operations that were planned for Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Lebanon to remake the Middle East. And never, ever do the Democrats explain that a big reason for going into Iraq was to eliminate one of Israel's chief regional enemies, in a war designed by neoconservatives closely allied to the Israeli right.
So what happens to the Democrats if the unwinnable war starts to look, well, winnable?
To be sure, Iraq could explode again. Muqtada al-Sadr's rag-tag army is seething with resentment over U.S. raids into its strongholds. The intransigence of the Shia-led Baghdad regime, which refuses to accommodate the Sunni-led opposition, could reignite Sunni resistance. And the Kurds' insouciant efforts to build, willy-nilly, an independent Kurdistan complete with illegal oil deals could spark war over Kirkuk. Still, there's a 50-50 chance that Iraq will continue to improve through 2008.
Recent polls show that Americans are beginning to accept the notion that things in Iraq are getting better. In February, only 30 percent of those polled felt that the war was going well, while 67 percent said it was going badly. By November, the public was evenly split, 48 to 48 percent. So far that hasn't translated into a kinder, gentler feeling toward the White House, but pollsters I've interviewed suggest that there is a long lag time between results on the ground in Iraq and political perceptions. Maybe, next November, voters will still blame President Bush and the GOP for Iraq, but maybe by then, they won't.
How they feel will depend a lot of what the Democrats do. For the past four years, the Bush administration has argued that the continuing violence means that the United States has to stay in Iraq. Now, they're suddenly arguing that the relative calm means that we have to stay, too. Will Democrats buy that argument? Many leading centrist Democrats believe that the United States ought to stay in Iraq, albeit with a reduced military role, for many years to come. They've bought Colin Powell's pernicious Pottery Barn argument, and they argue that having broken Iraq, we own it. The Bush administration is already negotiating a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq by treaty - a treaty, incidentally, that might be in place before the next president takes office.
It's clear what Democrats ought to do. They should strongly oppose the idea of a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. They should oppose the treaty that was announced between Bush and Prime Minister Maliki this week, and they should demand that it be subject to a vote in Congress. (The Iraqi parliament isn't exactly receptive, either.) They should oppose the creation of permanent bases in Iraq. They should seize the relative good news in Iraq to bolster the argument that it's time to inaugurate a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces. They should hammer away at the fact that the Bush administration's war in Iraq was a war of aggression. And they should remind American voters, time and time again, of the lie-filled case for war that was cooked up in 2002.
But I don't expect that to happen. Already there are signs that if Iraq continues to quiet down, and if the media coverage of Iraq continues to shrink, then the Democrats will simply change the subject to a subject they feel more comfortable talking about: the dismal U.S. economy, the housing bubble, and the threat of recession in 2008. That would be a big, big mistake.
But Democrats never make mistakes. Do they?