Worldpress.org

Iraq After Petraeus: The More Things Change …

John Isaacs, Right Web, International Relations Center (I.R.C.), September 28, 2007

Ambassador to Iraq Crocker (right) and commander in Iraq General Petraeus testify on Sept. 11 at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the state of the war in Iraq. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm / AFP-Getty Images)

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 Ambassador 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 than 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, Republican of Arizona, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut, wrote in a Sept. 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, Republican of Ohio, agreed in a Sept. 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, Democrat of Nevada, 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, Democrat of California, 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, Democrat of New York, captured the picture best: "The battle lines are exactly the same."

There were only two exceptions to this entrenchment. Representative Brian Baird, Democrat of Washington, returned from Iraq and switched from opposition to support for the war, while Representative James Walsh, Republican of New York, went from support to opposition.

For months, antiwar 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 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 Sept. 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 Qaeda] 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 U.S. 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 the Sept. 11 attacks, 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, Republican of Kentucky, 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 Sept. 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 John Warner, Republican of Virginia, Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, and Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, were increasingly vocal in their unhappiness with the war. In addition, aside from libertarian Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas, 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 Sept. 13 speech to the nation, appears to have succeeded in averting significant defections from the war policy.

In a perceptive Sept.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 Sept. 10 New York Times / CBS survey. A Washington Post / ABC News poll released Sept. 9 found that 62 percent of those polled thought the war was not worth fighting, compared to only 36 percent 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 Sept. 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 Sept. 11 USA Today / Gallup poll found that Americans supported setting a timetable for removing troops from Iraq by a 60 percent 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 percent felt it did.

And when a Sept. 11 CNN / Opinion Research poll asked whether "Congress should set a deadline for withdrawal," the public split 48 percent in favor and 50 percent against. This same poll found that 65 percent 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 this week adopted many amendments to the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, which Senator Reid had reinitiated for consideration. It had been pulled from the Senate floor in mid-July after the last fractious Iraq vote. A vote on passage of the bill could come as early as Monday, Oct. 1.

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 Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, and the legal problems surrounding Senators Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, Ted Stevens, Republican of Arkansas, 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 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, antiwar 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.

Abridged from Right Web of the International Relations Center (I.R.C.).

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

Copyright © 1997-2017 Worldpress.org. All Rights Reserved. - - Privacy Notice - Front Page