The Magazine

The Iraq Shuffle

The congressional Democrats waltz around inconvenient facts.

Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Last week, when the New York Times published an op-ed arguing that Gen. David Petraeus should be allowed more time to pursue his counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, supporters of President Bush's "surge" got excited. The political momentum seemed to shift in their direction. But Bush's supporters shouldn't get carried away. They are in danger of seriously underestimating the ability of those who believe the war is lost or was always unwinnable to ignore, deny, and attack all news of positive developments. They should not underestimate the popularity of what you might call the Iraq shuffle.

Antiwar activity seemed to crescendo in July, when leaks to the New York Times and Washington Post suggested the Bush administration was planning a significant reduction in American forces or a major shift in strategic goals in Iraq in coming months. The leaks--combined with congressional demands for a progress report on political and security "benchmarks" in Iraq and public criticism from several GOP senators that the current war strategy isn't working--caught the administration off guard. It scrambled to complete the progress report, explain the lack of political progress in Baghdad, and fight off further Republican defections.

It appears the administration was successful. In the House on July 12, only 4 Republicans voted with Democrats to pass the "Responsible Redeployment from Iraq Act," fewer than the 10 Democrats who crossed party lines to vote against the bill. And in the Senate on July 18, only 4 Republicans voted with Democrats to invoke cloture on Levin-Reed, the most popular antiwar amendment mandating major troop reductions by next spring. When the vote failed, Senate majority leader Harry Reid pulled the Defense Authorization Bill from the floor rather than allow votes on Republican amendments that probably would have passed easily. Meanwhile, the USA Today/Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans wanted to hear Gen. Petraeus's scheduled September report to Congress before supporting any drastic moves to end the war.

Those developments set the stage for a hard week for antiwar congressional Democrats eager to cause maximum damage to the administration before the August recess. It all began on Monday, July 30, when the headline "A War We Might Just Win" appeared on the Times opinion page over a piece by Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. The two left-leaning national security experts, backers of the invasion of Iraq but also critics of the administration's "miserable handling" of war policy, recently returned from their second (O'Hanlon) and third (Pollack) trip to Iraq. They found that the United States is "finally getting somewhere," at least "in military terms." O'Hanlon and Pollack conclude: "The surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008."

These words, coming from two well-regarded members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment and appearing on the nation's most liberal editorial page, resonated profoundly among war supporters in the White House and Congress. Right-wing radio talk show hosts began citing the O'Hanlon/Pollack op-ed, as did House Republicans during a debate on Iraq policy. Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani told talk show host Bill Bennett that when he read the piece, "I dropped my coffee." Supporters of the surge, who had long been aware of positive developments in Anbar province and elsewhere, felt as if their message finally was getting out.

Is it? It is hard to say. Antiwar Democrats immediately started dancing the Iraq shuffle, in which you ignore your opponent's arguments, shift the terms of the debate, and attack his motivation and character. Witness the left's reaction to a recent interview Petraeus gave to conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Rather than rebutting Petraeus's findings, lefty bloggers accused the general of being a partisan political actor. Or consider the liberal, antiwar Center for American Progress's "Progress Report" of July 31, entitled "Bush's Enablers." The email newsletter is sent to left-wing political operatives, activists, and journalists throughout the country and is a reliable barometer of progressive opinion.