Beyond the War Spin
J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- After
this week's elections in Iraq, will our national debate be about
what the United States should do to salvage the best outcome it
can from a war policy that has been riddled with errors and miscalculations?
Or will we mostly discuss how politicians should position themselves
on the war?
Here's a bet on the
triumph of spin. Politicians, especially Democrats, will be discouraged
from saying what they really believe about Iraq for fear of offending
``swing voters.'' Slogans about ``victory'' and ``defeatism''
will be thrown around promiscuously.
defenders have enjoyed short-term political success by turning
attention away from Bush's Iraq policies and toward divisions
in the Democratic Party on the subject. The Republicans particularly
enjoyed assailing Democrats who have called for the rapid withdrawal
of American troops.
The neat summary
of the new Republican home-front offensive was the tag line on
a Republican National Committee ad: ``Our country is at war. Our
soldiers are watching and our enemies are too. Message to Democrats:
Retreat and Defeat is not an option.'' Republican House Speaker
Dennis Hastert helpfully explained: ``The Democratic Party sides
with those who wish to surrender.''
Attacks on Democrats
of this sort are effective because Democrats help make them so.
Democrats are so obsessed with not looking ``weak'' on defense
that they end up making themselves look weak, period, by the way
they respond to Republican attacks on their alleged weakness.
Oh my gosh, many Democrats say, we can't associate ourselves with
the likes of Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic
leader who recently called for a troop withdrawal within six months.
Let's knife them before Karl Rove gets around to knifing us. Talk
about a recipe for retreat and defeat.
But the Democrats'
problem is not just one of political tactics. It's also rooted
in a simple reality: Democrats in both houses of Congress have
been divided on this war from the very beginning. House Democrats
are, on the whole, more dovish than Senate Democrats. And the
party's rank and file are, on the whole, more dovish than its
There is no magic
solution to this problem, and Republicans will continue to exploit
it. But if they do nothing else, Democrats have to stop being
defensive in the face of Republican attacks. To suggest that the
United States might be stronger if it found a way out from under
an open-ended commitment in Iraq is neither weak nor unpatriotic.
For a party to have differences over how to solve the seemingly
intractable problems the Bush policy has created in Iraq is neither
surprising nor feckless.
And to question this
administration's optimistic claims is simply good sense in light
of what has happened in Iraq up to now. After all, it's the administration's
wildly optimistic assumptions that led us to fight a war with
too few troops, too little planning, and Rodney King-like expectations
that the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds would all just get
In any event, why
shouldn't Democrats be divided on the war? So is the rest of the
country. And so are Republicans.
largely unnoticed is that while Democrats show their divisions
on the war in Congress, Republicans are more divided at the grass
roots. In the most recent New York Times/CBS News Poll,
76 percent of Democrats favored reducing our commitment to Iraq
-- 40 percent for pulling all the troops out, 36 percent for decreasing
their numbers -- while 13 percent favored keeping current troop
levels, and 6 percent preferred increasing their ranks. Among
Republicans, 16 percent favored increasing our troop levels while
37 percent would keep them constant. On the other side, 41 percent
supported decreasing our commitment, including the 10 percent
who were for full withdrawal.
These are remarkable
numbers: 16 percent of Republicans are more hawkish than the president,
41 percent are more dovish. Even in the president's own party,
a majority has doubts about our current course.
The real patriots
are not those who fall into line behind everything Bush says.
They are the Republican and Democratic doubters who have pressured
Bush into realizing that he has limited time in Iraq and an imperative
to speak more realistically. In his speech on Monday, Bush actually
admitted that ``things did not always go as planned'' in Iraq,
and that last January's elections ``were not without flaws.''
From an administration that never admits mistakes, that's progress.
Message to Democrats:
buck up. Message to Republican ad makers: Democracy is about improving
government through the uninhibited exchange of ideas. And, yes,
our soldiers and enemies are watching.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group