The Politics of Withdrawal

The midterm elections have produced a conundrum. Virtually everybody agrees that the Democratic sweep of Congress was largely attributable to anger about the war. Americans may be uncertain as to what should be done in Iraq, but they are unhappy with the current situation and want change. This sets up a nasty dilemma. Roll the tape forward to the presidential election of 2008: If the war is still going as it has been for the last two years, the Republicans will lose. No matter who the Democrats run, the voters will support him or her over amy Republican nominee. Moreover, more seats in both houses will go to the Democrats, giving that party overwhelming strength in Congress.

The Democratic candidate for president must leap one major hurdle before the election. Voters will want to know what the new administration will do about the war. In 1952, the war in Korea was deeply unpopular with the voters. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was running for president at the time, promised to go to Korea to see what could be done to stop the fighting. He did so in 1952, after which an armistice was negotiated. Some 15 years later the Vietnam War, also extremely unpopular, had generated an antiwar movement. The opposition to the conflict forced the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, to give up hope of reelection. Richard Nixon, in a tight race against Hubert Humphrey, promised to bring peace with honor but refused to spell out what he intended to do. The Democrats attacked his "secret plan" to end the fighting in Southeast Asia, but opposition to the war was so strong that the Democrats could not win.

In both those wars, the party that initiated the war lost the next election. The opponent in both cases was called on to say what he would do, and both candidates avoided being specific. In the election of 2008, the Democrat will have to promise to end the fighting but be vague about how he or she will do it. If the candidate is specific, the opposition will pick any plan apart and claim that the candidate is surrendering to the terrorists. In both Korea and Vietnam, the final outcomes did not look like surrenders, although neither was a victory for the U.S.

Consequently, Democrats who want to take back the government may hope that the war continues, although they cannot articulate this sentiment. In fact, Democrats must appear to be antiwar. In their hearts, however, they know that if the war continues on its current trajectory, they will be a shoo-in to sweep the Republicans from power.

This must also be obvious to the Republicans. If you are Arizona Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, or any other would-be GOP presidential candidate, you know that, if the war continues, you will be wasting your time. Republicans in Congress must know as well that what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan affects their future prospects. For the GOP to win back the Congress and keep the presidency, the U.S. must be out of Iraq, and America must look as though it won, or at least didn’t lose.

President George W. Bush continues to articulate his position that we cannot leave until we have won, whatever "won" means. Obviously, the president is unable to admit that this war has been lost or is lost. He cannot face the prospect that the war will be judged a huge mistake. Vice-president Dick Cheney, the person most responsible for the war and its failure, is still insisting that the U.S. must continue the battle and that eventually we will win. As far as can be judged from the outside, Cheney is still very influential with Bush.

So, in the next two years, can the Republicans talk the president into "cutting and running"? They will need to find some way of declaring victory before withdrawing. Given Bush’s ego, it will be hard to convince him that he must fall on his sword. If he doesn’t, his party will be impaled on it.

The war is going very badly. About three Americans are dying every day in Iraq. Some 3,000 Iraqis are losing their lives every month. Professionals continue to flee the country. As this is being written, Shi’ite militants are lobbing mortars into Sunni areas, and vice-versa. There is little hope that the situation in that country will improve in the next few years. Although various observers and some members of Congress have suggested changes in policy, nothing short of withdrawal has much of a chance to reduce the mayhem.

If the president cannot be made to admit defeat and leave, the next president, almost certainly a Democrat, will have to pull out our troops. When he or she does that, however, the Republicans will accuse the White House of being cowardly, losing the war, and endangering the United States. The public will also be unhappy with the government. Americans want out of Iraq, but most also want to win. Few will admit that winning is impossible. Demagogues will insist that we have the best military in the world and question why we were unable to inflict our will on a small, backward country.

Therefore, the Republicans can take hope. They will probably win the elections of 2012.