Postwar Elections and Peace Prospects

I hardly ever agree with David Brooks, the New York Times‘ token quasi-neoconservative columnist, on policy, but he is a shrewd observer who can often offer insights into what the purported influentials are thinking. His column this week suggesting that we are in the midst of a postwar election rather than a wartime election is worth considering, especially insofar as it may hold lessons those who want to end this war in fact as well as in perception might take into account.

Brooks notes that the National Intelligence Estimate last week suggests the next president won’t face a serious crisis over Iran, the fact that polls show more Americans believing things are getting better and we may even have turned a corner in Iraq, that Israelis and Palestinians are at least talking, that Pakistan hasn’t exploded and that Hugo Chávez in Venezuela suffered a referendum-induced setback. The upshot of all this, he suggests is this:

"The world still has its problems, but it no longer seems to be building toward some larger crisis. The atmosphere of fear and conflict has at least temporarily abated. With the change in conditions, the election of 2008 is beginning to feel like a postwar election. American voters are coming out of their shells constructed after Sept. 11th and are looking for a new normalcy. They’re looking for something entirely different."

There’s something to this. There was only a small murmur of dissent at Wednesday’s Iowa Republican debate when the moderator said that Iraq and immigration would be pretty much off the table. (Of course Republicans who still support the president have reason not to want to talk too much about Iraq.

The number of New Hampshirites who cite Iraq as their top concern has dropped noticeably. Whether this is due to real success brought about by the surge or a rather lamentable lack of network and even cable reporting on Iraq is worthy of discussion but might be irrelevant. Even judging by the kinds of questions candidates get at speeches and fora, Iraq is no longer the first-and-foremost concern of voters, as it almost certainly was in 2006 when the president’s party received a sound spanking – although not quite decisive enough for the newly-majoritized Democrats to do much about changing Iraq policy, even if they were as united on the subject as in fact they are not.

Mr. Brooks sees this reduced emphasis on the war in terms of what voters will want from a candidate, especially a presidential candidate: "In wartime, leadership traits like courage, steadfastness and ruthlessness are prized. Voters are willing to vote for candidates they distrust so long as they seem tough and effective (Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani)."

In contrast, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found the top three qualities voters now want in a candidate are: "the ability to work well with the leaders of other countries; having strong moral and family values; brining unity to the country. These are cooperative qualities, not combative ones. They require good listening skills, openness and the ability to compromise." Perhaps a desire for such qualities explains the rise of the candidates who have been rising in the polls, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama, who have perhaps a week’s worth of foreign policy experience between them.

This growing perception among voters that the war is over and it’s time for postwar values, however, runs up against an inconvenient fact. The war is not over, and if the preliminary agreement between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki means anything (the administration doesn’t plan to submit it to the Senate as a treaty as the Constitution would seem to demand, but ironically it might get queered by the Iraqi Potemkin parliament), U.S. occupation will continue indefinitely. The agreement calls for relatively permanent bases housing some 50,000 U.S. servicepeople, and the duration could approach the length of time U.S. troops have been based in South Korea or Germany.

Another inconvenient fact is that while violence does seem to have declined in Iraq since about September or August, the decline has been to the levels of about a year ago, which most people, including even the administration a year ago, considered unacceptably high. And even if the military draws down the 30,000 or so troops that constituted the "surge, that will leave about 130,000 troops in Iraq, a country whose government has still done little or nothing about the supposed benchmarks of progress – constitutional revision, oil revenue-sharing, minority representation – that were supposed to follow once the Americans helped to reduce the level of violence.

In short, voters may be in a postwar mood, but the war is far from over, especially for those who are still stationed in Iraq.

To some extent, this poses a problem for the antiwar movement (or for the various factions who oppose this war – having lived through the Sixties as a chronological adult and paid a certain amount of attention, I’m not prepared to call the current brave band a "movement" just yet).

It’s fine and dandy that most polls show that even though most Americans now believe things are going better in Iraq, they still don’t think the war was worth starting. But if they have the perception that the war is essentially over, it might not be a high priority for many. The sense of urgency, the conviction that we need to bring the troops home now – or at least as quickly as is logistically feasible – may be lost.

If antiwar people are unable to stir up or motivate a sense of urgency among the larger populace, if the coming campaign revolves around health care or immigration or tax policy rather than the war as the single most important issue, then the momentum will be on the side of the status quo (if that isn’t a logical contradiction). And the status quo at this point still favors the war party, which is, after all, still in control of the executive branch, which controls the Pentagon.

I don’t know if there’s a way out of this dilemma. And as even David Brooks acknowledges, events could occur, in Iraq or elsewhere, that will upset this feeling of postwar desire to turn to domestic issues and pretend that the war, if not formally over, has receded in importance to the point that we can ignore it. But if he’s right that voters are in a postwar mood – and the character of the "debates" suggests that they just might be – it just might make it more difficult to end the war in the real world.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).