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Iraq After Petraeus: The More Things Change …

Many people in Washington thought that September would produce a marked change in the Iraq War policy. A number of Republicans who...

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Many people in Washington thought that September would produce a marked change in the Iraq War policy. A number of Republicans who criticized the war but did not vote against it might now work with Democrats to pass legislation forcing President George W. Bush to bring U.S. troops home.

However, after the early September Capitol Hill testimony from Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker defending the Bush war policy and the troop "surge," partisans on both sides of the Iraq divide largely have been confirmed in their previous positions. That is, those who already supported Bush’s war strategy found comfort in the testimony. And those who already opposed the war were convinced that whatever military progress there had been was not accompanied by political progress and that there is no alternative but a prompt and orderly withdrawal.

Not since Gen. William Westmoreland went before Congress on April 28, 1967 to assure the American people that the war in Vietnam was going well has this country witnessed so many members of Congress hanging on a U.S. general’s every last word.

The commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam spoke confidently at the time. "I can assure you here and now that militarily this [communist stratagem called ‘war of national liberation’] will not succeed in Vietnam," General Westmoreland remarked.

This time around, General Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told Americans: "Innumerable challenges lie ahead; however, Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces have made progress toward achieving sustainable security."

While Petraeus’ claim was more careful that Westmoreland’s, his descriptions of military progress on the ground in Iraq were sufficient to reassure war supporters. Iraq War ultra-hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) wrote in a September 10 Wall Street Journal op-ed: "We hope that opponents of the war in Congress will listen carefully to the evidence that the U.S. military is at last making real and significant progress in its offensive against al-Qaida in Iraq." McCain, trying to jumpstart his flagging presidential campaign, raced from the Petraeus-Crocker hearings to campaign stops in Iowa and New Hampshire with his new brand stamped prominently on the campaign bus: "No Surrender Tour."

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) agreed in a September 10 statement that the Petraeus testimony "underscored the stark difference between his thoughtful, responsible strategy and the irresponsible aims of some to precipitously withdraw our troops and leave Iraq in chaos."

War critics were equally vocal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said: "Our enemies around the globe gain great advantage by having the United States mired in an Iraqi civil war. Clearly, continuing to pursue the president’s flawed escalation policy until at least July 2008 is not in the national interest of the United States." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) added: "The president’s strategy in Iraq has failed."

It was clear that little has changed since Congress went on recess in August. House Rules Committee Chair Louise Slaughter (D-NY) captured the picture best: "The battle lines are exactly the same."

There were only two exceptions to this entrenchment. Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) returned from Iraq and switched from opposition to support for the war, while Rep. James Walsh (R-NY) went from support to opposition.

For months, anti-war organizations had the field to themselves. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq ran television and radio ads in a number of carefully targeted districts and hired organizers to rouse grassroots sentiment. Their goal: persuade Republicans to vote against the war.

In August, a pro-war group called Freedom’s Watch entered the fray. The new organization, with former Bush II White House press secretary Ari Fleischer taking the lead, promised to spend up to $15 million in ads supporting the president’s policy.

On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Freedom’s Watch ran full-page ads in the Washington Post and New York Times, along with television ads saying, "They [al-Qaida] attacked us. And they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq."

The newspaper ads conflated all terrorist attacks in London, Spain, Washington, Germany, New York, Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, concluding: "Victory is America’s only choice."

This was reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon warning that we had to stop the Communists in Asia so they wouldn’t attack us here, or Ronald Reagan’s suggestion that the leftists in Central America had to be stopped from coming north across the United States border. Fleischer and his group are delivering the same kind of dire warnings to spread fear and encourage an overly simplistic "us vs. them" approach to terrorism that smacks of xenophobia. Despite the fact that all investigations have shown that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, many Americans continue to believe in the linkage, thanks to spurious propaganda like this.

MoveOn.org generated its own controversy with a full-page New York Times ad playing on Petraeus’ name, asking whether it should really be "General Betray Us?" Most of the media suggested that the ad went too far, permitting White House allies to change the focus from where it should have been—on the ongoing quagmire in Iraq—to left rhetoric.

Republicans in both the Senate and House introduced resolutions denouncing the MoveOn.org ad and demanded that Democrats disassociate themselves from it. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) labeled the idea "an opportunity for Senate Democrats to have their reputation restored. I can’t believe that Senate Democrats approve of this kind of trash." (The amendment was ultimately not voted upon.)

Democrats were forced to play duck-and-cover on the hard-hitting ad. Speaker Pelosi conceded on September 11: "I would have preferred that they not do such an ad."

The Upshot—More Breathing Space for Bush As Congress adjourned in August for the congressional recess, the White House was anxious about mounting Republican criticism of the war. Important Republican Senate leaders such as Sen. John Warner (R-VA), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) were increasingly vocal in their unhappiness with the war. In addition, aside from libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), conservative presidential candidates who had so far stuck with Bush were at risk of breaking from the policy.

While the troop surge has neither solved the political situation in Iraq nor won a military victory, it has dampened the Republican outcry against the war. Petraeus’ testimony, combined with Bush’s September 13 speech to the nation, appears to have succeeded in averting significant defections from the war policy.

In a perceptive September 11 column, Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne Jr. neatly described the president’s political progress at home, even if not in Iraq: "It has bought more political time in Washington, bringing Bush closer than ever to reaching one of his main objectives: keeping large numbers of troops in Iraq beyond Election Day 2008."

Public opinion polls provided aid and comfort to both sides. Seventy-one percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the war, according to a September 10 New York Times /CBS survey. A Washington Post /ABC News poll released September 9 found that 62% of those polled thought the war was not worth fighting, compared to only 36% who thought it was.

On the other hand, the same polls found more Americans believed that the troop surge had produced progress than were skeptical, and there was a great amount of respect for the military to end the war. The September 10 New York Times poll analysis found that "Americans trust military commanders far more than the Bush administration or Congress to bring the war in Iraq to a successful end."

When asked about what to do now, Americans are still conflicted. A September 11 USA Today /Gallup poll found that Americans supported setting a timetable for removing troops from Iraq by a 60% majority. But when the same survey asked whether the United States had an obligation to establish a "reasonable level of stability and security" before withdrawing troops, 67% felt it did.

And when a September 11 CNN/Opinion Research poll asked whether "Congress should set a deadline for withdrawal," the public split 48% in favor and 50% against. This same poll found that 65% of those surveyed believe the United States should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq.

These inconsistent results suggest that while the November 2006 elections results may have shown that Americans are fed up with the war, believe that Bush is mishandling it, and want to get out, there is still no consensus on how or when to leave.

What’s Next in Congress The Senate is next expected to hold votes on Iraq as early as this week. Senator Reid has reinitiated consideration of the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill that was pulled from the Senate floor in mid-July after the last fractious Iraq vote.

While no decisions have been made, the Senate may consider Iraq amendments as free-standing measures during consideration of the Defense Authorization bill. Under this procedure, amendments would be considered individually outside of the planned consideration of the Authorization bill. If adopted by a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority, the amendments would then be added as part of the Authorization bill. The rules may also permit an equal number of Democratic and Republican amendments.

Senate Democratic leaders have made it clear that while they continue to support a firm deadline for withdrawal of most American troops from Iraq, they will also support more moderate measures that have a greater chance of attracting the dozen or so Republican votes required to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass controversial legislation in the Senate.

However, compromise may lead to defections on the left: Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) declared his opposition to any compromise, and more than 75 House members have signed an equally adamant letter.

Possible Democratic Senate amendments could include:

  • A Reid-Russ Feingold (D-WI) amendment establishing a firm timetable for withdrawal (a comparable amendment received 52 votes in July).
  • A Dodd amendment requiring all troops to be out of Iraq by April 2008.
  • A Carl Levin (D-MI)-Jack Reed (D-RI) amendment establishing a firm timetable to begin withdrawal, a new mission for U.S. forces in Iraq, and a "goal" for the date withdrawal must be completed.
  • A Jim Webb (D-VA)-Chuck Hagel (R-NE) amendment requiring more rest and training for U.S. troops before being sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan (which received 56 votes in July).
  • A Ben Nelson (D-NE)-Susan Collins (R-ME) amendment requiring the president to change the mission in Iraq to force protection, counterterrorism, and Iraqi troop training.
  • A Ken Salazar (D-CO)-Lamar Alexander (R-TN) amendment endorsing the conclusion of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group that most U.S. troops be withdrawn from Iraq by the first quarter of 2008.
  • A Joe Biden (D-DE) amendment endorsing a "soft" partition in Iraq and calling for an Iraq peace conference.

Republicans are likely to offer a series of amendments, although Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proposed letting Democrats struggle to build a 60-vote majority without offering alternatives. "I don’t feel the need to do anything," Graham commented.

Some Republican options:

  • An amendment endorsing the Petraeus recommendation of a modest drawdown of troops in Iraq to the pre-surge level of about 130,000.
  • A denunciation of the MoveOn.org ad.
  • An endorsement of Bush’s "war on terror," with the Iraq War a central element of that struggle.
  • A Warner-Lugar amendment requiring the president to plan for a more substantial troop withdrawal than the one currently being contemplated by the White House.
  • George Voinovich (R-OH) amendment putting the Petraeus timeline for a partial troop withdrawal by July 2008 into legislation.

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) is probably correct in his prediction that, "The odds are that when the smoke clears none of the bills will get the 60 votes."

The House situation on further Iraq votes is less clear. House Democratic leaders are inclined to wait and see the results of the Senate votes before deciding any course of action.

But the Iraq votes in the coming weeks are not likely to be Congress’ last word on Iraq. There are still two touch points.

Foremost is the November 2008 election. While voters may have been conflicted in November 2006 about how to get out of Iraq, they leaned toward Democrats because of their unhappiness with the war, turning both houses of Congress from Republican control to Democratic. While many voters may be disappointed with the results so far in Congress, they are unlikely to swing back to Republicans if more than 100,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq 14 months from now under Bush’s leadership.

Republican election nervousness has been enhanced in recent weeks with the announced retirements of senators Warner and Hagel and the legal problems surrounding Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), and Senator Domenici.

The political views of the Senate Republican leadership team of McConnell and Lott are critical. They may come to the conclusion that the November 2008 election will be a disaster with the Iraq War still raging—and demand that Bush change policy.

The second touch point will be votes on what is called a Supplemental Appropriations bill, a measure likely to be considered in October or November to provide close to $200 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the next fiscal year. If the Senate Appropriations Committee attaches amendments in committee to slow or stop the war, anti-war forces will need only 51 votes to protect these provisions from Republican attempts to excise the language. With this result, Democrats gain leverage against the Bush war policy.

In short, the chapters being written in the next few weeks are by no means the end of the struggle to end the Iraq War.

John Isaacs is the executive director of the Council for a Livable World and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org).

 

Citations

John Isaacs, "Iraq After Petraeus: The More Things Change ...," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, September 19, 2007).

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