The Magazine

Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Base

Obama's position has been overtaken by events.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Boxing their candidate in is, of course, what the Democratic base wants and insists on. So far, the line has been that the surge is a success but the war is a failure--"whipped cream on a pile of fertilizer," as Time's Joe Klein puts it, "a regional policy unprecedented in its stupidity and squalor." But even this hasn't quite caught up with events. Saddam is gone, Al Qaeda in Iraq is on the run, the Sunnis are with us, the Shia are turning against their militias, and the Washington Post is suggesting that "Iraq, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves and a strategic linchpin of the Middle East, just might emerge from the last five years of war and turmoil as an American ally, even if its relations with Iran remain warm." In other words, the operation was a failure, but the patient has survived, and is somehow becoming healthier by the day. Seldom has failure appeared quite so good.

"What do the Democrats do if--yes, if, if, if--the surge appears to have succeeded?" Michael Crowley wrote in a New Republic blog last November. "If Iraq somehow stabilizes and even incrementally improves, doesn't that affect the presidential campaign?" Crowley wondered "whether the Democrats have been preparing for that possibility--and what their contingency plans are if the Iraq debate tacks substantially back the GOP's way."

In their innocent way they hadn't prepared in the slightest, which is why they are caught between a public that would rather not lose a war and a base of Bush-hating, antiwar supporters to whom the idea of giving up on losing would feel like the worst loss of all. On the one hand, the former is most of the country; on the other, for the past five years or so all of the zest, oomph, zeal, pizzazz, and certainly most of the cash in the party has come from the latter. The problem was summed up nicely last week in the Washington Post, where on Tuesday the more centrist editorial board praised Obama for moving away from the "strident and rigid posture he struck [on Iraq] during the primary campaign," while on Monday the liberal columnist E. J. Dionne had warned Obama he had to stay as strident and rigid as ever, or else he would lose the "high ground" and "dull the enthusiasm (and inhibit the campaign contributions) of the war's staunchest foes." Meanwhile, the netroots are bitching, and Obama's online donations have begun to drop off.

Throughout 2007 and into this year, the Democrats portrayed the surge as Bush's attempt to kick defeat down the road to his successor, but that line, too, has been overtaken by events. Vietnam was seen as lost when Lyndon Johnson handed it off in 1969 to Richard M. Nixon, and Nixon was not blamed for the failure. But Iraq now, by almost every metric, is on the way up. Bush's successor will have to work hard to lose it, and do so against the loud public protests of the troops who have done so much to win it. This is where Obama's prior pronouncements would lead him, and surely he knows it. His base may still want him to lose "Bush's War," but the rest of the country would never forgive him. Or it.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.