Friday, August 03, 2007

Might success in Iraq benefit the Democrats?

Byron York lays out succinctly the dilemma facing the Democrats as the party-in-opposition (to the executive, at least) in the midst of a war. Here at The Hill:

The Iraq debate that we’ve been watching this year has been about two bets.

After false starts and misplaced hopes in 2004, and 2005, and 2006, George W. Bush is betting his surge strategy will facilitate the political progress that could bring a semblance of stability to Iraq.Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are betting the surge will fail. It’s as simple as that. If Bush wins his bet, Iraq will be a better place, the Middle East will be a better place, and America will be a safer place.

But Reid and Pelosi lose if Bush wins. Given the position they have staked out for themselves, the best possible outcome is for Gen. David Petraeus to give a downbeat report on the surge when he comes before Congress in September. That would give tremendous momentum to those who want the quickest possible U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. It’s the dilemma of being in the opposition in wartime. By betting so much of their political capital on the issue, Reid and Pelosi have become invested in U.S. failure. A U.S. success would throw a wrench in their plans.

York goes on to say Democrats might have avoided this unfortunate position had they waited to give the surge a chance to show itself for better or worse. And there's this much-noticed Washington Post report of Democrats in Congress worried that we might indeed be winning militarily, here. I have a different question, though.

Democrats have, of course, treated the Iraq war as a replay of Vietnam. Because of their political DNA, perhaps, a congenital inability to comprehend things any other way or see it through any other lens. In that narrative, the role of the opposition is to get the US out by any and all means. And, having got the US out, a grateful electorate will presumably give them its support.

But is this necessarily how it works? Consider the quite stunning reversal of fortune of Churchill and the Tories the very moment WWII ended. An apparently altogether ungrateful electorate promptly turned them out of office, in favor of an agenda of constructing something between the welfare state and straight-out socialism. It wasn't sustainable over the long haul, although it took until 1979 to become overwhelmingly clear. And at the time, the experience of the electorate in the shared sacrifices of total war had taught it something deeply felt - that the sacrifices of war should result in a better peace, including within the nation. The Tories were believed adequate to winning the war, but Labour was better suited to building the peace. Voters were quite unsentimental about it.

What would be the result of, however improbably, a Republican led victory in Iraq, and let's throw in for good measure, the crippling of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, the death of Bin Laden and his chief aides, the crippling of the Taliban and stability of some sort in Afghanistan, and measurable progress in things like port security, surveillance, and intelligence gathering? It's a thought-experiment - give it some room, thank you very much. Efforts supported, not torn down, by Democrats? What would happen, that is, if the American public came round to feel that its security had been greatly enhanced and that America had largely won its wars? Would it thereby commit long term to the Republicans?

Or would the American public instead - particularly if Democrats could plausibly claim to have been part of the coalition of security success rather than invested in failure - decide that now was the moment to turn away from security and turn to issues on which it might plausibly trust the Democrats more? (This is assuming that the electorate would, over the long term, trust the Democrats more on taxes, social security and retirement, the environment, health care, etc. - it's a thought-experiment, give it some room, thank you very much.) Does anyone think that the American electorate is more sentimental than post-war Britain's?

One might argue, in other words, that the best strategy for Democrats is not to seek to replay Vietnam, but instead to back the Bush administration and work together with the Republicans in favor of a security strategy, including, whether one likes it or not, the war in Iraq, in order to win it on some modest measure of success-as-stability. That might well be the best way for Democrats to neutralize Republicans on the Republican security advantage. It does not mean foregoing the opportunity to say, "This wasn't my idea," or to say, "We told you so," or even to hold out the possiblity that at some point, the war really is lost, even on General Petraeus's criteria.

But it does mean not announcing that the security threat was never real or serious, or that it was merely the Republican boy crying wolf, and that the security risks can be defined away by fiat. And it does mean acknowledging that once in a war, it is better to succeed than to fail, for the country as a whole. And it does mean joining with them, share any success that can be snatched at this late date, and depend upon the fact that the American public has very little patience with past performance and asks automatically, "Yeah, but what have you done for me lately?"

Democratic electoral success in the future thus might be better sustained by the American public visibly seeing not only that Democrats take security seriously, and take it seriously not merely by denying that, yes, Virginia, there are external threats in the world - but even more by success in seeing off those threats. A less threatening world might well electorally favor the Democrats and the issues on which they might better play to the electorate than national security. Ask Churchill, circa 1948.

(Okay, okay, it's a thought experiment, nothing more.)


Anonymous said...

I don't think the Democrats are denying external threats, but not understanding why we are fighting in Iraq.

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