Where are the Republicans for Peace?

One definition of insanity is responding to failure by doing more of the same. Such as marginally increasing the number of troops in Iraq and making war on both Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias. Unfortunately, President George W. Bush has done no more than ritualistically acknowledge his past mistakes and still refuses to make a genuine course correction. The killing in Iraq is likely to get worse rather than better, making even more distant the president’s definition of victory: “a functioning democracy that polices its territory, upholds the rule of law, respects fundamental human liberties, and answers to its people.”

Iraq is a public charnel house, a national example of Thomas Hobbes’ feared war of all against all. A few Bush supporters still talk about much unpublicized “good news” in Iraq. Vice President Richard Cheney even made the remarkable claim in October that “If you look at the general overall situation, they’re doing remarkably well.”

But virtually no one treats such administration claims seriously any more. Many leading conservatives, such as Rich Lowry of National Review, now admit that carnage in Baghdad’s streets overshadows, say, increased cell phone sales. In a remarkable article entitled “Time to Change Course,” conservative journalist William Tucker acknowledged: “the horrible thing about Iraq right now is that if you read all liberal criticisms of the past four years, you realize it is basically right.”

Last year was the deadliest for both US troops and Iraqi civilians: an estimated 17,000 Iraqis died in the last six months alone. So obvious has been the failure of Iraq’s government and the collapse of Iraqi civil society that even President Bush felt the need to concede that “our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed” and “that we need to change our strategy.”

Whether disaster was inevitable will long be disputed by the neoconservative architects of the war, who have been shamelessly fleeing the administration wreckage as it sinks. They got the war that they desperately desired but now wail about the boob in the White House who botched everything. (For instance, Ken Adelman of “the invasion will be a cakewalk” fame, calls the Bushies “incompetent” and “deadly, dysfunctional.” Eliot Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins, says they are “incredibly incompetent.”)

Certainly a multitude of mistakes by the president and his appointees hastened Iraq’s dissolution into sectarian war. However, the most fundamental flaw was to believe in global social engineering, that a few bright policy nerds sitting around Washington could simply and quickly remake an artificial nation rent by sectarian divisions and lacking any democratic tradition into a liberal, pro-western state. It was foolish, indeed criminal, arrogance.

In any case, at this stage even the best policy seems doomed to fail. The president rightly warns about the negative impact on US credibility of a withdrawal and the potential of an all-out civil war in Iraq, but he sounds a bit like the man who murders his parents and then pleads for mercy since he’s an orphan. America’s credibility has suffered, and will suffer more, because of the mistaken invasion of Iraq. It is the botched occupation that has allowed “radical Islamic extremists” to, in Bush’s words, “grow in strength and gain new recruits.” The harm is done and cannot be reversed. All we can do is learn from this experience – America should not promiscuously put its credibility on the line, and never do so for objectives that are not vital.

Moreover, withdrawal is inevitable. The worst place for the US to be is in the middle of a sectarian fight. Already 70 percent of Iraqis – which means almost all Arabs, whether Shi’ite or Sunni – say that attacks on American soldiers are justified. The idea that Iraqis will supinely accept years more of foreign occupation is a fantasy. The idea that taking on both Sunni and Shi’ite extremists, as intended by Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who is running day-to-day military operations in Iraq, will yield peace is fantasy compounded.

Even in the short-term, little can be done. Surely marginal changes in current policy will have only marginal impact. President Bush’s planned 21,500 troops won’t yield nearly that many combat soldiers. Indeed, little more than half of the 130,000 troops currently on station are combat arms. (The problem is logistics for America’s equipment-heavy forces, not laziness, as Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute seems to think: “We’ve got lots of soldiers sitting on megabases all over Iraq. They should be out and about, some of them embedded, others just moving around, tracking the terrorists, hunting them down. I don’t know how many guys and gals are sitting in air-conditioned quarters and drinking designer coffee, but it’s a substantial number. Enough of that.” Thus pronounceth a certified member of Washington’s ivory tower punditocracy.)

A few more patrols by a few more troops might temporarily pacify a handful of neighborhoods or villages, but at high cost in American lives. Insurgents and terrorists will soon adapt to the increased presence and make bloody use of the increased number of US targets. At best, the Bush “surge” may slow Iraq’s descent into hell, but is not likely to change that nation’s ultimate destination. The worst case is truly awful to contemplate.

To have any hope of achieving genuine “victory,” the president first would have to demonstrate the sort of competent management that so far has been lacking in nearly four years of war. Like a second marriage, that is to trust in hope over experience.

Second, he would have to add tens or hundreds of thousands of new troops. As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, according to the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, developed in part by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus – slated to become the new commander in Iraq – Baghdad alone requires about 120,000 occupation troops. If 250,000 or more troops were necessary for the entire country at the start to squelch opposition from Ba’athist remnants of the old regime, suppress the designs of the newly freed Shi’ites, and shelter a new, liberal pro-American regime, then far more soldiers and Marines would be necessary today to restore the status quo ante – that is, to repair Humpty Dumpty and put him back on the wall. But that isn’t going to happen. America doesn’t have the manpower, absent a full mobilization, and Americans wouldn’t stand for it even if the troops were available.

Of course, the president extolled his “comprehensive review,” which consulted “Members of Congress from both parties, allies abroad, and distinguished outside experts.” The congressional meetings were pro forma, however, with attention paid only to the handful of legislators who backed escalation of a losing effort. The opinion of foreign allies never mattered, and the “experts” consulted were the same people who pushed the administration to invade Iraq in the first place. Talking to them made sense only if the president planned to do the opposite of what they proposed.

Nor is there popular support for the president’s “new” strategy. According to the latest Gallup poll, nearly three quarters of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the war. A strong majority believes that invading Iraq was a mistake. More prefer an immediate withdrawal to a troop increase, and more want a withdrawal by next January than support staying “as long as needed.” Nearly half of Americans don’t believe the administration’s goals are achievable, and 61 percent oppose sending more troops.

If ever there was time for Democrats to act as a genuine opposition, it is now. There finally are stirrings of life. Liberal warhorse Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) has proposed legislation requiring the president to win new congressional authorization before sending more forces to Iraq: “Is there any American in this country who thinks the United States Senate would vote to support sending American troops into a civil war in Iraq today,” he asks? Other Democrats have talked about passing a nonbinding resolution opposing the escalation or urging a withdrawal.

The new congressional leaders were cautious during the fall campaign, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently wrote the president, opposing his new policy: “Based on the advice of current and former military leaders, we believe this tactic would be a serious mistake.” They called for a withdrawal to begin within four to six months. Even Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) seems to have backed away from her longtime support for the war, though her position remains equivocal.

More seriously, Democrats have threatened to block funding for additional forces. (They could refuse to pass new appropriations, limit the use of money already approved, and/or set conditions, such as providing a detailed plan, on any new monies.) Congress has no constitutional obligation to underwrite a disastrous war: The president may be commander-in-chief, but he doesn’t deserve a blank check in any case, and certainly not after acting as blunderer-in-chief. However, the power of the purse is a blunt instrument and one fraught with political risk, since no one wants to be accused of undercutting fighting men and women in the field. Congressional skittishness may seem strange when fewer than one in five people back the administration’s course, but legislators routinely avoid even the perception of political danger.

Thus, the betting in Washington is that strong grassroots support will not be enough to convince Democrats to cancel the president’s credit card. States Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman, “We’re not going to cut off funding to the troops.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) says such a step is a “hollow threat.”

Funding, alas, is about Congress’ only tool to limit presidential war-making. Investigations and hearings – which began before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Armed Services Committee yesterday – can help embarrass a deceitful and incompetent administration, but will do little to force the executive branch to change military policy. Especially an administration that has simultaneously proved to be brazen in its claims to unilateral authority, demagogic in its attacks on those who defend the rule of law, and shameless when it comes to justifying its behavior.

Nevertheless, the Democrats, newly in control of both the House and Senate must act. The country can no longer stand having the so-called opposition party playing a “me-too’ game, criticizing the Bush administration but adding that Democrats, too, want victory and oppose withdrawal. America needs more than Democrats as Republicans-lite.

Equally if not more important, the nation needs a GOP whose legislators are willing to break with the administration. Historically the Republican Party has not been reflexively either pro-war or pro-executive supremacy. After all, war is the biggest “Big Government” program, and the greatest threat to individual liberty, low taxes, and economic freedom. The genius of the Constitution, routinely lauded by GOP propagandists, was separating powers and creating checks and balances.

The ongoing threat to Republican values is obvious today. There is little about the Bush administration or the Bush administration’s war that represents traditional conservatism. If Republicans care about what they preach, and the country they seek to lead, they must confront a failing policy in Iraq.

GOP leaders also have a partisan interest in acting. With the Republican administration determined to commit the political equivalent of ritual seppuku, presidential contenders and Republican legislators need to separate themselves if they hope to survive in 2008. Last November Democrats won despite manifold GOP advantages: the power of incumbency, congressional maldistricting, a growing economy, and Democratic disunity. Polls show that the Iraq war swept everything before it, poisoning the environment for all Republicans. If America remains mired in a disastrous Iraqi civil war 22 months from now, the GOP losses could be cataclysmic.

For years GOP critics have been few: Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who initially supported Bush, as well as the handful of House Republicans who voted against the war from the start, including Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Jimmy Duncan (R-Tenn.), Jim Leach (R-Iowa), and Charles Taylor (R-N.C.). For their trouble, the latter two were defeated in November and all were routinely and regularly abused by neocon warriors and pro-war pundits. Nevertheless, Sen. Hagel calls the administration’s latest plan “Alice in Wonderland.”

Now, however, rank-and-file Republicans are getting nervous. Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) survived a close election in part by flipping against the war. Another narrow winner, Air Force veteran Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), opposes any troop surge. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), up for reelection next year in a state with moderate political inclinations, recently attacked Bush’s policy as “absurd,” “deeply immoral” and a “dereliction,” and said it “may even be criminal.” Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), also up in 2008, opines: “I don’t believe an expansion of 20,000 troops in Iraq will solve the problems.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said that “it would be a mistake to send more troops to Baghdad.” Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) has indicated her “deep skepticism” and “concerns” about the president’s plan, while Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) has carefully avoided committing himself. Columnist Robert Novak figures that the administration will be lucky to corral a dozen Republican Senators to offer full support for its planned “surge.” Even the GOP Senate leadership expects to lose at least ten members on any vote.

Still, criticism is one thing. Action is another. Are Republicans willing to work to force America’s withdrawal? So far, probably not. Sen. Smith has indicated that he might back Sen. Kennedy’s call for a new authorization vote, but he’s unlikely to oppose funding. Observes Sen. Smith: “It would be a dishonorable thing for the Congress to budget away the bullets at a time when their commander-in-chief had ordered them to hold their place in the battlefront.”

No one wants to undercut troops in the field, but a budget cutoff would benefit soldiers and Marines in Iraq, as well as the entire country, by speeding their return home. If an administration has been derelict in its handling of an immoral and criminal war, surely it is dishonorable for Congress to do nothing.

While realism about Iraq is spreading within the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, it has yet to permeate the GOP presidential contest. In its unique (and uniquely bizarre) form of political primogeniture, the Republican presidential nomination typically goes to the candidate perceived as first-in-line, which is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Yet he also is the principal Republican supporter of the Bush “surge.” As such, McCain has tied himself to the Bush program and the Bush record. A year from now, if 150,000 instead of 130,000 American troops remain stuck in an ever-worsening sectarian war, that ain’t going to look good.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has signed onto Bush’s escalation; second tier candidate Rep. Duncan Hunter (Cal.) also defends the administration’s Iraq policy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has tended to urge war against everyone.

The other contenders have said far less about Iraq, but only Sen .Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has opposed the administration surge. Nevertheless, at least they have some chance of separating themselves from President Bush’s disastrous policies. One could imagine former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), or even former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, essentially saying: I trusted the president but now have seen the light.

Candidates will have to act soon if they are to convince the public that their Iraq policy will be based on reality rather than fantasy. The longer GOP contenders go without criticizing the ongoing debacle, the harder it will be for them to avoid being ensnared. The one potential presidential contender who is not at risk is Sen. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, Republican stalwart, and Iraq critic.

So far he has been vilified by the architects of the Iraq blunder, those who are most responsible for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans and 150,000 or more Iraqis. Indeed, deskbound hawks at National Review online and elsewhere have mocked Sen. Hagel for speaking truth to power, as it were. That was then, however, and this is now.

Jonathan Alter of Newsweek argues that in the new political climate Hagel could become a serious contender, especially when compared to John McCain, one of only two GOP Senators to vote against the Bush tax cuts. Explains Alter:

"Supporting Bush on Iraq today is a liability, not an asset; it reeks of 2004 thinking. Six months from now, any Republican who opposed the tax cuts but champions Bush’s disastrous Iraq policy is going to have some explaining to do in early debates. When Rush Limbaugh says after the midterms that he is sick and tired of “carrying water” for Bush, Chuck Hagel is not going to be run out of the party for refusing to carry water."

In fact, this is a critical moment for the Republican Party: does it any longer support limited government? At least George W. Bush has steadfastly pushed tax cuts and tried to sell his war as a part of the fight against terrorism. With that justification long ago exposed as fraudulent, however, the Republican Party must make a critical choice as it approaches 2008. To embrace John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Duncan Hunter would be to state unequivocally that the GOP is the Party of War. Even worse, for Republicans to nominate McCain would be to place support for Wilsonian warmongering above support for Reaganesque tax-cutting. It would formally divorce the Republican Party from the conservative philosophy.

Sen. Hagel has so far made no move to run and there are precious few other top Republicans free of the taint of President Bush’s botched Iraq war. However, growing desperation on the part of GOP professionals fearing an electoral tsunami might draw Hagel into the race or turn some of today’s more cautious contenders publicly against the war. Either that, or the Republican Party will find itself deservedly facing electoral oblivion.

Our nation’s future is at stake. In choosing to blunder ahead, the administration refuses to engage in any rational balancing of costs and benefits. As Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday:

"It is essential to ask the administration and its hawkish backers at what point they will admit that the costs of this venture have become unbearable. How much longer are they willing to have our troops in Iraq? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? How many more tax dollars are they willing to pour into Iraq? Another $300 billion? $600 billion? $1 trillion? And most crucial of all, how many more American lives are they willing to sacrifice? Two thousand? Five thousand? Ten thousand?"

Yes, it is time that we asked those questions. All of us.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argues that “Congress is incapable of micromanaging the tactics in the war.” Fair enough. But the administration has proved completely incompetent at that task. Congress must assert itself. A Democratic majority was elected to govern. It is the time for the Democratic majority to govern.

Republicans have an even greater responsibility, since their party is most liable for America’s catastrophe in Mesopotamia. And for them more than the lives and wealth of Americans, and reputation of America, is at stake. How the GOP responds to the disastrous failures of its nominal leader will determine the party’s political relevance for years to come.

We must begin leaving Iraq, and plan to leave completely.