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There They Go Again

Democrats seek flexibility on Iraq while denying it to the nation's policy-makers.

11:00 PM, Dec 12, 2005 • By PAUL MIRENGOFF
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THE DEMOCRATS' 2006 election strategy regarding the war in Iraq has begun to emerge. According to the Washington Post, key Democratic operatives and legislators "are slowly coalescing around a political plan [that] would involve setting a broad time frame for drawing down U.S. troops and blaming Bush for misleading the country into a war without a victory plan." Their aim is to "provide the party enough maneuvering room to allow Democrats to adjust their position as conditions in Iraq change." This strategy, the Post explains, is the product of fear that advocating a prompt withdrawal from Iraq would jeopardize the party's chances of succeeding in 2006. Thus, for the third straight election, mainstream Democrats intend to craft their position on matters of war and peace based on political calculation, not their view of the national interest.

As the slow motion cut-and-run strategy gains political steam, liberal think-tanks and Clinton-era security analysts are providing their blessing. For example, in late November former White House national security adviser Richard Clarke called for the United States to announce that the final withdrawal of American troops from Iraq will occur by the end of 2007. Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, the think tank created by Democratic operative John Podesta, is also advocating a phased withdrawal pursuant to a similar timetable. Yet just this past June, before the Democratic strategy had begun to "coalesce," Korb stated that such a timetable would be "a mistake."

With their latest Iraq policy gyration, and with public support for the war waning, Democrats finally have the potential to affect policy. In 2002, many Democrats manifested their opportunism by voting for a war they didn't want--a loathsome act, but one that did not threaten to drive policy. In 2004, when the Democrat standard-bearer flip-flopped on the war, he merely provided comic relief. But with the formulation of their "quit later" plan, the Democrats' opportunistic split-the-baby impulse has spawned a distinctive policy alternative.

And what a policy alternative it is. Only Democratic legislators and liberal think tank denizens could rally around the concept of announcing to our enemies that we will fight until a certain date (or year) and then quit. Even strident anti-war Democrat Bob Graham has recognized the absurdity of advising our enemy of the time frame in which we intend to cut-and-run. Surely no country in history has ever embraced such an approach to warfare. War is not a government program that can be managed according to a fixed schedule. Rather, it is a struggle in which one's next move must always be contingent on current reality, not pre-established timetables.

DEMOCRATS UNDERSTAND this logic as clearly as the Bush administration does. Indeed, their political strategy has been designed, in the Washington Post's words, "to provide the party enough maneuvering room to allow Democrats to adjust their position as conditions in Iraq change." Yet when it comes to the nation's military strategy, the Democrats propose to withhold such maneuvering room from the commander-in-chief and our armed forces.

The Democrats and their partners base their counter-intuitive and anti-historical strategy on the premise that our military presence fuels the terrorist insurgency. Thus, the argument goes, if we announce that we are leaving, the terrorist insurgency will magically run out of steam.

While the U.S. presence may well provide an incentive for some unknown number of Iraqis to cast their lot with the terrorists, our ability to kill terrorists, and the knowledge that the terrorists cannot make real headway as long as we are present and committed, provides an incentive not to so enlist. But whatever the net impact of our presence on terrorist recruitment, those who favor waiting before pulling out clearly understand that the terrorist insurgency would become more potent in relation to the forces arrayed against it if we were to leave--otherwise they would advocate that we pull out now. But unless Iraqis are capable in, say, two years of providing the level of security that exists now (something we cannot know at this time), leaving in two years would also likely increase the potency of the insurgency.

The facile claim that America's presence fuels the terrorist insurgency also contains a heavy dose of solipsism. Unlike certain Democrats, the enemies of a free Iraq have important policy-based objectives that transcend their feelings about U.S. foreign policy. The terrorist insurgency consists of three main elements--al Qaeda, Baathists, and "rejectionists." The stated objective of al Qaeda is to establish a base of operations in the heart of the Middle East, like the one it once had in Afghanistan. If the United States announces its intent to withdraw, al Qaeda's incentive to establish that base will not vanish--all that will disappear is the sense of any long-term obstacle to its achievement.

The goal of the Baathists is to reestablish an authoritarian, Saddam-style regime in the Sunni triangle and as much of the rest of the country as possible. As with al Qaeda, that goal will endure if the United States says it intends to leave Iraq. Similarly the rejectionists--those (mostly) Sunnis whose fear and loathing of Shiites causes them to reject coexistence--will have no incentive to lay down their arms if the United States says it plans to leave. On the contrary, the realization that the United States will no longer be around to push for the accommodation of Sunnis within an Iraqi state would likely increase the intensity of rejectionist sentiment.

SOME ADVOCATES of Cut-and-Run Lite argue that if the various factions within the Iraqi government understand that the U.S. will soon depart, they will be forced to hang together in order to avoid hanging separately. But this, too, amounts to wishful thinking. We know that the cooperation achieved so far among factions has largely been the product of head-banging by the United States. To the extent that the parties believe America is on its way out, our leverage disappears. In any case, increased inter-faction cooperation is no substitute for adequate security forces. Without such forces, which only the United States presently can train, the elements of the government will "hang," whether they come together or choose to separate.

Thus, the discussion returns to the crucial question of when Iraqi security forces will be able to defeat or nullify the terrorist insurgency more or less on their own. Because we cannot answer that question today, it makes no sense as a matter of policy to set a timetable for withdrawal. But mainstream Democratic positions about Iraq have always been about political calculation, not policy considerations.

Paul Mirengoff is a contributing writer to The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Power Line.