Will Democrats ever acknowledge progress in Iraq?

It was simply ridiculous for Democrats to fight about race, but it’s more serious that they won’t disagree about Iraq.

None of the Democratic presidential candidates – or Congressional leaders – will acknowledge that the troop surge in Iraq creates the possibility that the United States could actually win the conflict and that their calls for hasty troop withdrawals may be misguided.

As Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., observed last week on the first anniversary of President Bush’s surge announcement, if opponents of the surge had had their way, “Iraq today would be a country in chaos: A failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by Al Qaeda and Iran.”

On the campaign trail, McCain added: “Al Qaeda would be proclaiming that it had defeated the United States in Iraq.” He’s right. A year ago, a civil war was raging and the United States clearly was losing. Now, it has a chance to succeed, a turnabout with profound strategic implications.

For sure, the surge is working militarily – U.S. deaths are down 80 percent; civilian deaths, 75 percent; car bombs and suicide attacks, 60 percent. Al Qaeda terrorists are on the run. Iraqi security forces have expanded by 100,000 and are now in charge of half of Iraq’s provinces.

Politically, there is progress, too, especially at the provincial level. Former Sunni insurgents are cooperating with the United States, and Sunni politicians may rejoin the national government. Shiite militants have declared a ceasefire.

The civil war has largely stopped. No national oil revenue law has been passed, but oil revenues are being shared. And Iraq’s parliament has passed a law allowing former Baath Party members to collect pensions and serve in the government.



It’s not victory. Political progress is slow. But Iraq is heading in the right direction. U.S. forces might have to stay for 10 years more – but, eventually, as peacekeepers, not combatants, as in Korea and Kosovo. Instead of suffering a huge strategic loss, the United States would have shown it has tenacity, altering its image in the world.

Democrats, however, insist on minimizing the success and advocating early timetables for full withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.

The Democratic line now is that it was to be expected that adding American troops would have a military impact – not that they argued that a year ago – but that political progress won’t occur until the United States announces definitively that it’s leaving.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is sticking by her offensive comment last September that she would have to “suspend disbelief” to accept Gen. David Petraeus’ assessment that progress was being made.

And Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., maintains that the Democratic Congressional victory of 2006 – and the prospect of U.S. withdrawals – was responsible for the Sunni awakening, when in fact it started earlier. In a conference call last weekend, Obama foreign policy adviser Susan Rice could cite no evidence to back up his assertion.

Certainly, the Iraq war remains unpopular, especially among Democrats. It may be too much to expect that their presidential candidates would completely recast their positions now. But at least they ought to acknowledge reality and express hope for success.

Suppose that, by November, Iraq is basically quiet and is making clear political progress. The Democrats’ persistent naysaying could well be a political liability. And, if a Democrat gets elected, will he or she actually throw victory away to fulfill a campaign promise?

Meantime, Clinton and Obama thankfully may have restored a truce in a racial tempest that was utterly baseless in the beginning – but has had political consequences.

It’s unthinkable that Clinton, with her personal history and record, would have intended to demean Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in making the historically accurate statement that it took President Lyndon Johnson to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed.

Also, it was not Obama, but neutral Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who started blowing her comment into a firestorm. And other veterans of the 1960s civil rights era kept it going, with Clinton backer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., declaring that Obama is “no Martin Luther King” and Al Sharpton complaining that Obama is running a “race-neutral campaign.”

That’s exactly what he’s been doing – partly because African-Americans make up less than 15 percent of the voting-age population.

Obama is running as a beneficiary of the civil rights era – the fulfillment of King’s dream of a person judged on the basis of his character, not his color.

He’s like Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, the two 2007 Super Bowl coaches; Tiger Woods and Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice – blacks who have risen to the top on merit. If Obama wins the presidency, it will be a capstone to King’s legacy – and LBJ’s.

If anyone’s been playing “identity politics,” it’s Clinton – clearly running as a female and trying to rally those of her gender. This makes political sense, too, since women accounted for 54 percent of all voters in 2004.

Clinton didn’t succeed in carrying female voters in the Iowa caucuses, but she did in New Hampshire, partly by mailing out false charges that Obama was weak on abortion rights.

Perhaps she is the victim of poetic justice now. Even though implications that she’s racially insensitive are false, African-Americans voted 70 percent to 30 percent against her in Tuesday’s Michigan primary. Clinton led Obama among blacks nationally all during 2007 but now trails by 25 points. And blacks likely will give Obama a big victory in South Carolina.

If Clinton and Obama ended racial quarrels in the MSNBC debate on Tuesday, they will continue battling over who’s fittest to lead.

What would impress me – and other independent voters – is if one of them would say: “I was wrong. The surge has produced positive results. And, if they continue through this year, when I am elected I will take Gen. Petraeus’ advice about our troop deployments.

“I want to withdraw as many troops as possible, as fast as possible. But, while I think President Bush was wrong to go to war, if the United States can win in Iraq, I want to make that happen.”

Don’t hold your breath.

(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)

Copyright 2008, Roll Call Newspaper

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