September 1, 2006  

War strategy

Can a plan to leave Iraq put Democrats in office?

In 1952, candidate Dwight Eisenhower made a vague promise to end the Korean War, and it got him elected president. In 1968, Richard Nixon touted a secret plan to end the war and win the peace in Vietnam, and he, too, was elected president.

Now Democrats are hoping a similar strategy will work for them in this fall’s congressional elections.

But saying just enough to entice voters — as Eisenhower and Nixon did — and not enough to alienate them is tricky.

Fearful of being tagged as the party that’s anemic on defense, most Democrats have refrained from calling for an outright withdrawal from Iraq. That has displeased aggressive activists on the party’s left flank who are applying substantial pressure to get out of Iraq now.

Instead, Democratic leaders are calling for the start of a “phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq,” and they are highlighting Republican mismanagement of the war.

“It’s the right approach,” said an aide to a House Democrat who helped unveil the strategy. “It puts you on the right side of the issue without tying your hands.”

By that he means Democrats can align themselves with the majority of Americans, who now think the war is a mistake, without getting too specific about when and under what circumstances U.S. troops will pull out of Iraq.

“It’s a wedge issue that’s got the public’s attention,” the aide said. Moreover, it puts the Republicans in the awkward position of defending an increasingly unpopular war that is the legacy of an increasingly unpopular president, he said.

“Also, frankly, it’s good, sound policy,” the aide said.

Democrats relish the irony. Their strategy is like something the Republicans would have devised — except this time they’re on the wrong side of the issue.

Poll results suggest that the war in Iraq will be a key issue in this fall’s congressional election.

A late July Gallup Poll found that 85 percent of voters say the war will be either “extremely important” or “very important” in determining how they will cast their ballots in November.

What the polls are less clear about is whether those who are motivated by the war will vote for it or against it. While a June ABC/Washington Post poll found almost 60 percent of Americans saying the war is not worth fighting, a late July New York Times/CBS poll found those affiliated with political parties are sharply divided. Three-fourths of Republicans said the U.S. did the right thing when it invaded; three-fourths of Democrats said it did not.

Also in late July, a Gallup Poll found that a majority of Americans believe the war in Iraq has been a mistake, but there is no consensus on what to do now. Only one out of five Americans wants an immediate pullout of U.S. troops. Six out of 10 favor a gradual drawdown.

So where does that leave the Democrats? “People may not be happy about how Republicans are running the war, but do they think Democrats can do better?” asked Phil Noble, a political consultant based in Charleston, S.C.

“I think people know that the Bush administration has bungled the operation of this war,” he said. But that doesn’t mean they trust Democrats to fix it. “Traditionally, Democrats have been branded as weak on defense.”

Democrats are trying to change that perception, but with noticeably mixed results.

A few Democrats have staked out positions as war supporters. The best-known is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose support for the war prompted Connecticut Democrats to reject him as their candidate for the Senate. Lieberman’s primary loss is likely to signal to some Democrats that running against the war is a winning strategy.

A few Democrats, such as Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., have already registered strong opposition to the war. Since November, Murtha has been calling for an immediate redeployment of U.S. troops, declaring that the war has reached the point where it cannot be won militarily. “It’s time to turn Iraq over to the Iraqis,” Murtha says.

But most Democrats aren’t willing to go that far.

In June, Democrats in the Senate pushed for “a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq” that should begin before the end of 2006. The Democrats were careful not to say when the redeployment should be completed.

The plan was rejected by the Senate and, predictably, denounced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as “a cut and run plan for surrender.”

The Republicans enjoyed remarkable success for a couple of years using the cry of “cut and run” to make the Democrats look feckless on Iraq. Except now the Republican alternative — stay the course — is starting to look pretty grim.

War costs are mounting, U.S. deaths are approaching 3,000 and, on Aug. 3, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East told the Senate Armed Services Committee that violence between Sunnis and Shiites is so bad he fears Iraq will slide into civil war. Democrats have begun to sense that the mess in Iraq is the Republicans’ greatest vulnerability.

Although still averse about unequivocally opposing the war, a number of Democrats have adopted a strategy that enables them to bash Bush’s handling of the war and, at the same time, promote a stronger defense.

Two days before heading home for their August recess and a month of campaigning, seven of the most senior Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee gathered in the Rayburn House Office Building to announce that the Army “is in crisis,” thanks to the policies of Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress.

After five years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and chronic underfunding by the White House and Congress, two-thirds of the Army’s brigade combat teams are unready for combat, said Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Armed Services Democrat.

That’s not just Skelton’s assessment. Those readiness statistics come from the chief of staff of the Army.

In 2007, the Army will need $17.1 billion more than the Republican administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have been willing to give to buy such basics as ammunition and equipment, to train troops and to cover such routine expenses as base operating costs and utility bills, Skelton said.

“At military bases across the country, lights are being turned out, cell phones are being turned in, jobs are being lost and family services are being cut,” said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas. “This negatively impacts our training, our equipment, our military families, and creates a serious strategic risk for the nation.”

“We desperately need a new direction in terms of our military policy,” said Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas.

Besides the $17 billion needed for 2007, the Army will need an extra $13 billion a year until at least two years after the Iraq war ends to repair and replace damaged equipment, said Rep. John Spratt of South Carolina, No. 2 among committee Democrats.

None of that is provided in budgets Bush has proposed for the next six years, he said.

Is this a vote-winning strategy? The Democrats think so.

Since polls consistently show “the war is the top issue, focusing on the war helps get Democrats out to vote,” said the House aide. By decrying the damage the war is doing to the Army, Democrats can “support the military without supporting the war.”

And without actually opposing it.

Wouldn’t it be better to be less equivocal? Yes, said Norman Ornstein, who studies politics, Congress and elections for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

“What’s hurting the Democrats is that they clearly are divided,” Ornstein said. “They’ve got a very aggressive left wing that wants out now,” while most elected Democrats worry an immediate pullout would only make the current mess worse.

“Iraq is a very, very complex situation. There are no good options, and there are many different views as to which is the least bad option,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as a national security assistant to President Clinton.

In the absence of good alternatives, it’s not surprising that there is a range of views among Democrats on what to do next about Iraq, he said.

Noble, the political consultant, thinks the strategy of the Armed Services Committee Democrats is a good one.

“Regardless of whether you agree with the foreign policy, everyone agrees the troops ought to be well taken care of, and the Bush administration has failed on that account,” he said.

“Anytime the Democrats can show that they have equal or greater concern for the troops, that’s a good thing for them,” he said.