Just when Republicans thought they had Democrats caught in another election-year “terror trap,” The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward sprung them by refocusing attention on the mess in Iraq.
That’s the politics of national security. At the moment, the advantage would seem to favor Democrats.
But the grim reality of the situation makes the politics seems trivial. Voters have a choice between Congressional Republicans who rarely question a bull-headed, arrogant administration that’s slowly losing the war in Iraq, and Democrats who simply can’t be trusted to fight the nation’s enemies.
Woodward’s new book, “State of Denial,” follows several others that tell the same story: The United States went into Iraq with too few troops to secure the country; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld refused to plan for a post-invasion occupation or the possibility of an insurgency and intimidated top generals into going along with his undermanning of the operation.
The book portrays President Bush as being willfully blind to the realities unfolding in Iraq – and deceptive in conveying them to Congress and the nation.
I think Woodward fails to credit the need for a president to defend his war policies for the sake of maintaining political support and troop morale. On the other hand, if he failed to ask incisive questions in private – and whack heads, where appropriate – he was not fulfilling his role as a strong wartime leader.
With a few exceptions – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to Bush’s right, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to his left – Republicans in Congress publicly have saluted the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld policy, even if many of them muttered in private and failed to provide adequate oversight.
It’s not fair to say – as Democrats do – that Bush policy has been “stay the course” without nuance or change. There have been tactical and strategic changes on the military and political level.
But it’s still true that Iraq has never been made secure, that the level of violence is mounting and that Iraqi politicians seem incapable of fashioning a unified country. And Bush has failed to convince Americans to be patient for a long struggle.
At the same time, most Congressional Democrats have one policy: Get out of this “quagmire” as fast as possible, regardless of the consequences. “Liberals” want out starting immediately. “Moderates” want out next year. Very few have positive ideas on how to win.
Moreover, it’s hard not to conclude from their rhetoric last week that Democrats regard Bush and Co. as a greater menace to America’s security and liberty than Osama bin Laden.
There’s no question that the administration’s initial approach to handling terrorist detainees was unacceptable in a democracy. It was strictly (and typically) an executive-branch and military process without recourse to the courts or Congress.
Once the Supreme Court struck down that approach, the Bush administration came up with a pre-election Congressional strategy to legalize the detainee program – as well as the National Security Agency’s terrorist wiretapping program – that set a new trap for Democrats to show voters that they are “weak” on terrorism.
It was a reprise of the GOP’s 2002 sudden support of a Department of Homeland Security and its fashioning of a fight over civil service rules into a test of strength against terrorism.
Again, this year, the Democrats walked right into it. In the debate, Democrats (and a few Republicans) basically argued that noncitizen terrorist captives deserve the same constitutional protections as domestic criminal defendants, fulfilling GOP caricatures that they don’t really regard the war on terror as a war.
During the debate on NSA spying, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., declared that “this bill is contrary to every basic principle of our country. If we pass (it), we are opening up new opportunities for an increasingly despotic administration to continue to erode the basic freedoms and liberties of the American people.”
On final passage, 177 House Democrats (and 13 Republicans) voted against the NSA program – which is designed to intercept international, not domestic, communications – and 160 Democrats (plus seven Republicans) voted against the military tribunals bills, as did 32 Senate Democrats and one Republican.
On Sept. 25, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing at which three retired military officers, veterans of the Iraq War, excoriated Rumsfeld and called for his replacement.
But on the issue of what to do in Iraq, the officers did not hew to the Democratic line – or the Bush line. Maj. Gen. John Batiste declared: “There is no substitute for victory and I believe we must complete what we started in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton said, “We need a Manhattan Project” to equip Iraqi forces with better armor and weapons and triple the U.S. training force. The U.S. Army also needs 60,000 more personnel, he said.
Col. Thomas Hammes said the United Sates actually has a good military strategy – “clear, hold and build” – but it lacks the troops and resources to accomplish it. He called for “putting the U.S. government on a war footing,” with tax increases to pay for it. And, he said, success might take 10 years.
“If we fail in Iraq,” he warned, “I am convinced that our children will pay for the mistake.” Sectarian civil war will spread to other countries, he said, and they will send forces into Iraq to protect their interests. Sunni areas will become “Afghanistan on steroids” for terrorists. And Iran will dominate the Gulf.
Neither the Bush administration nor Congressional Democrats have the will to do what’s necessary to salvage the situation.
Regardless of who wins the November elections, America seems headed for a catastrophic strategic defeat in Iraq. It will be left to the next president to pick up the pieces.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
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