January 13, 2006
Bush Skating Circles Around the Democrats

By Froma Harrop

It's always painful watching President Bush skate circles around the Democrats. Believe me, I take no pleasure in the sight.

Bush's figure eights were on display recently when he warned Democrats to tread carefully on the war issue in the midterm-election campaign. Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said Americans know the difference between "honest critics" and "defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."

Reporters sharply asked Bush spokesman Scott McClellan whether the president was stifling dissent. And Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat, repeated his call for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Stifle dissent? Are you kidding? The more leading Democrats talk the wrong way about Iraq, the better off the Republicans are. Do Democrats think Bush was offering sage advice to help them in the upcoming elections? He was setting bait, to which they immediately rose.

We've all seen the recent poll numbers on the war. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, 53 percent of respondents said the war was not worth fighting, versus the 47 percent who felt it was. Only a third saw the war contributing a great deal to our long-term security, and 59 percent thought the Bush administration didn't have a clear plan for Iraq.

The war is not popular, but that doesn't mean Democrats are going to get points for promoting a we've-been-beat version of the story. Before going on, let's note that Democratic opinion is diverse, ranging from staunch support of the war to trafficking in conspiracy theories. But you know what the public thinks when a top party official like Howard Dean says, "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong."

Dean should have taken a cue from another Vermonter, the late Sen. George Aiken. When the situation in Vietnam appeared desperate, Aiken famously advised the nation to "declare victory and go home."

'Tis better to declare victory and go home than to declare defeat and go home. Either approach has the same result -- we go home -- but the triumphal withdrawal preserves troop morale and allows a more orderly adjustment. Democrats understandably want to slam Republicans over a war that's been costly in lives and treasure, and was based on ginned-up intelligence. And no one needs reminding that the outcome little resembles the flower-covered parade to Baghdad, as portrayed in the pre-war propaganda.

But by wallowing in defeatist talk, Democrats bring down the general public, along with their Republican adversaries. Whatever one might think about the war, we're in it. We have to get out of it in the least messy way. Demanding immediate withdrawal -- even by a fine defender of our troops like Murtha -- could unleash new chaos.

Furthermore, it's not in American interests to assert that nothing good has come out of the war. For starters, we got rid of the mass murderer Saddam. For another, a fledgling democracy has been created. Its survival is no certainty, but the scenes of Iraqis voting -- Sunnis included, in the last round -- are to be savored.

The crazy thing is that at this very moment, Bush is doing much of what the Democrats demand: He's already started bringing the troops home. Reuters reports that defense officials are looking at a possible reduction to 100,000 U.S. troops by "later this year."

By "later this year," I bet they mean by Nov. 7, the date of our midterm elections. (Karl Rove has also seen the poll numbers showing discontent with the war.) The plan is clearly in place to declare victory and come home. As Election Day approaches, expect to see Republicans bragging that they've already reduced troop levels in Iraq by a third -- while exaggerating the good things that have happened in Iraq.

Then what will the Democrats do? What they should do is make a nuanced argument that the results, while mixed, were on balance not worth the sacrifice. But are they capable of it?

Assuming they aren't has been a good wager so far. And that's why Bush and Rove are probably giggling as they egg on Democrats to make more intemperate remarks. The amazing thing is that the Democrats haven't figured this out.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Froma Harrop

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