Defeatists in retreat.
Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
Hot July brings cooling showers, / Apricots and gillyflowers, as Sara Coleridge's doggerel has it. But for the American antiwar movement, this July brought only a cold drizzle, wilted blossoms, and bitter fruit.
For the Iraq war's opponents, July began as a month of hope. It ended in retreat. It began with Democratic unity in proclaiming the inevitability of American defeat. It ended with respected military analysts--Democrats, no less!--reporting that the situation on the ground had improved, and that the war might be winnable. It began with a plan for a series of votes in Congress that were supposed to stampede nervous Republicans against the continued prosecution of the war. It ended with the GOP spine stiffened, no antiwar legislation passed, and the Democratic Congress adjourning in disarray, with approval ratings lower than President Bush's. It began with Democratic presidential candidates competing in their antiwar pandering. It ended with them having second thoughts--with Barack Obama, losing ground to Hillary Clinton because he seemed naive about real world threats, frantically suggesting that he would invade Pakistan.
July also began with the liberal media disparaging the troops. It ended with the liberal media in retreat. The New Republic had to acknowledge that its pseudonymous soldier's account of an incident purportedly showing the dehumanizing effects of the Iraq conflict was a lie: It had taken place in Kuwait (if it happened at all), before this imaginative private ever saw the horrors of war. The New York Times was so shocked to discover in late July that public opinion hadn't continued to move against the war that it redid a poll. The answer didn't change.
This last incident, though minor, is revealing. On July 24 the Times reported that a new survey had found an increase in the number of Americans retrospectively backing the liberation of Iraq:
In the Times's view, as explained on its website, this result was "counterintuitive"--so much so that the editors had the poll repeated to see whether they had "gotten it right." Turns out they had.
As the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto commented: "Well, two cheers for the paper's diligence, but this also seems to be about as close as we're going to get to an admission of bias: an acknowledgment that those at the Times are flummoxed that the public is not responding the way they expect to all the bad news they've been reporting."
What's striking is that the Times was flummoxed. In the real world, the news from Iraq had been (relatively) good for a couple of months. General David Petraeus's military success had been followed with striking political achievements in Anbar province. At home, a mood of annoyance at the Bush administration's conduct of the war had started to yield to a realization that we were approaching a choice of paths on Iraq, and that the consequences of embracing defeat would be severe. But that's not the world the Times editors live in. In their world, this is a war that should never have been fought and that has long been irretrievably lost--and everyone should simply accept those settled facts.
In the real world, the public is skeptical of the administration's stance on Iraq--but not overwhelmingly or irretrievably so. Here's what a new Rasmussen poll says: "Twenty-five percent of voters now say the troop surge is working and another 26 percent say it's too soon to tell. A month ago, just 19 percent considered the surge a success and 24 percent said it was too early to tell." This means that 51 percent are now at least open to giving the policy more time. That's up from 43 percent a month ago.
Given the mistakes the Bush administration has made over the past four years, given the real challenges still ahead, given mainstream media bias in general and the lag in public understanding of what has happened in the last three months on the ground in Iraq in particular, these numbers aren't bad. And they're moving in the right direction. The public remains more sensible than much of elite opinion--and more open to new facts.
That's good, since progress on the ground in Iraq is likely to continue. It can't be taken for granted, given the nature of a war against a ruthless and adaptable enemy. Still, one British general--no cheerleader for our conduct of the war in the past--told me in Baghdad last week, "It's getting better--and I don't see why it shouldn't continue to do so." And, despite the mainstream media, reports of that progress should continue to seep into the American public's consciousness. "This war is lost," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stated without qualification a few months ago, adding that it required "blind hope, blind trust" to believe in progress of any sort. But Reid is now in the position of holding blindly to his embrace of defeat. He has to deny facts in order to sustain his bleak judgment.
This denial will likely get more and more difficult. After all, civilian deaths in Baghdad are decreasing, and al Qaeda's networks and safe havens are being systematically disrupted. In Anbar, and now in Diyala, a bottom-up reconciliation is moving ahead as tribal sheikhs have turned against al Qaeda and are siding with American troops and Iraqi Security Forces. Ramadi, once among the most dangerous cities in Iraq, is now dramatically safer--our group walked through its downtown last week without body armor (though, of course, accompanied by several well-armed American soldiers).
As Michael E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack put it in their New York Times op-ed on July 30,
What's more, the public debate will move from a referendum on Bush's conduct of the war over the past four years to a discussion of the choices ahead, as Gen. Petraeus's testimony in September draws near. The public will finally have to consider seriously the implications of giving up on Iraq, as opposed to supporting the continued prosecution of a war we might well win. This debate should bring home to nervous Republicans in particular the truth that panicked abandonment of the war effort is the worst gambit available to them (to say nothing of the most dishonorable). Meanwhile, Democrats, who have been pandering to their antiwar base, will increasingly see that they have--as the third-ranking Democrat in the House, James Clyburn, acknowledged last week--"a problem." If Petraeus reports progress, Clyburn acknowledged, then "I think there would be enough support" among moderate Democrats "to want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us."
So here is where we are: In terms of U.S. national interests--and in terms of its own political well-being--the Republican party faces a moment when, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, honor points the path of duty, and the right judgment of the facts reinforces the dictates of honor. General Petraeus will deliver the facts in September. If Republicans can keep their nerve under media and elite assault, then they will have the honor of following the path of both duty and the right judgment of the facts. I suspect all will come out well. Americans can sometimes be impatient and short-sighted. But when a choice is clearly presented, they tend to reject the path of defeat and dishonor.