With less than six months before the mid-term congressional elections, President George W. Bush and his top aides are gambling heavily some would say recklessly that Iraq will not be the political liability for Republicans that most pundits have believed it would be.
The White House’s apparent belief that recent events in Iraq particularly the killing of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the filling of the key security posts in the new government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki could really constitute a turning point in the war has clearly given the Bush team new confidence that public opinion can also be turned around by November.
How else to explain Bush’s lightning, headlines-grabbing trip to Baghdad Tuesday, which not only tied his political fate ever more closely to Iraq and the success of the relatively unknown and untried Maliki government, but also put far more pressure on uneasy Republican lawmakers to rally behind the president’s policy during this week’s unprecedented debate in the House of Representatives.
That the Bush team intends to embrace, rather than downplay, Iraq in the upcoming political campaign was also underlined by the highly partisan speech given Monday by his top political aide, Karl Rove. Rove, who had just been told that he would not, after all, be indicted by a special prosecutor for his role in leaking the name of a clandestine CIA officer, warned that, with the Democrats in control, Iraq would be overrun by terrorists like Zarqawi.
"When it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party’s old pattern of cutting and running," Rove declared in what could only be called a provocation calculated not only to throw the Democrats on the defensive in the congressional debate, but also to play on their internal divisions on the issue.
Indeed, the White House appears to be intent on using Democratic disunity and incoherence over what to do in Iraq to persuade voters come November that, at the very least, Republicans are committed behind a strategy, flawed as it may be. That would be a reprise of its constant attacks against Sen. John Kerry, Bush’s Democratic challenger in 2004, as a "flip-flopper" who at the time both denounced the war and opposed withdrawal.
While Kerry’s position has since evolved he is now pushing for a six-month deadline for withdrawal the Democrats as a party remain, as the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee put it this week, "all over the lot" on Iraq, a fact that has increasingly become the focus of critical media coverage in recent weeks.
While all Democrats assail the administration’s incompetence in carrying out the war, the party is deeply divided over what to do about it.
Following the lead of Rep. John Murtha, a 37-year Marine Corps veteran with long-standing ties to the uniformed military, at most half of House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have called for a "redeployment" of all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.
The rest in the House, as well as a clear majority of Senate Democrats, are divided between those who want to begin such redeployment by the end of this year and those who, like the front-runner for Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Sen. Hillary Clinton, oppose setting any kind of timetable for withdrawal.
"I have to just say it," she told an unhappy meeting of Democratic activists earlier this week, "I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment [in Iraq] nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain [for withdrawal]," she said.
To Rove, Iraq is a "wedge" issue par excellence one that can be used to drive deep philosophical divisions among the Democrats of the kind that ended the party’s nearly 40-year political hegemony when Richard Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
According to this view, the split between liberal interventionists and antiwar forces that opened 40 years ago over the Vietnam War, if carefully manipulated, could yet prove fruitful for Republicans, provided, of course, that they remain united behind the president and the situation in Iraq between now and next November offers new glimmers of hope.
Of course, those are very big ifs, and, in that respect, Bush, the failed oil speculator, is showing himself once again to be a high-stakes gambler.
While, since Zarqawi’s death, he has tried hard to downplay expectations of any quick end to the violence in Iraq, there can be little doubt of the administration’s new confidence.
Bush’s trip to Baghdad was obviously calculated to focus the U.S. mass media on the two positive events there during the previous week Zarqawi’s killing and the completion of Maliki’s government. It also aimed to raise the curtain on a series of other steps, most notably a new initiative to curb violence in the capital by deploying unprecedented numbers of Iraqi troops, designed to tangibly reduce prospects for civil war.
Designed by U.S. Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and the head of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, Washington’s strategy will also focus on negotiating deals, including amnesty, with Sunni insurgents and rehabilitating former Ba’athists at a much faster rate in hopes of integrating them into the "government of national unity."
Similarly, the spate of reports that Washington will not go through with plans to draw down at least 30,000 of the approximately 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by the November elections, as well as growing talk by senior officials about retaining as many as 50,000 U.S. troops there beyond 2009, makes clear that Bush is now more committed to his Iraq adventure than ever.
But Bush’s confidence will have to compete with persistent public skepticism and concern about accumulating costs in both blood and treasure. Indeed, on the same day that the Iraq debate got underway Thursday in the House, the Pentagon reported that the U.S. military death toll in Iraq since March 2003 had reached a new benchmark: 2,500.
Several national polls taken since then have shown consistent with most pollsters’ predictions a bounce of about four percentage points from the high 30s to the low 40s in public confidence that the war was going well compared to two months before, although another found that approval in Bush’s performance remained unchanged at 37 percent.
For Bush’s gamble to work, he will need a lot more good news out of Iraq over an extended period of time. That, and continued incoherence on the issue from the Democrats.
(Inter Press Service)
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