"Americans face the choice between two parties with two different attitudes on this war on terror."
--George W. Bush, September 28, 2006
President Bush is right. It would be nice if he weren't. The country would be better off if there were bipartisan agreement on what is at stake in the struggle against jihadist Islam. But despite areas of consensus, there is still a fundamental difference between the parties. Bush and the Republicans know we are in a serious war. It's not the Bush administration that is in a "State of Denial" (as the new Bob Woodward book has it). It's the Democrats.
Consider developments over the last week. Democrats hyped last Sunday's news stories breathlessly reporting on one judgment from April's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE)--that the war in Iraq has created more terrorists. More than would otherwise have been created if Saddam were still in power? Who knows? The NIE seems not even to have contemplated how many terrorists might have been created by our backing down, by Saddam's remaining in power to sponsor and inspire terror, and the like. (To read the sections of the NIE subsequently released is to despair about the quality of our intelligence agencies. But that's another story.) In any case, the NIE also made the obvious points that, going forward, "perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere," while jihadist failure in Iraq would inspire "fewer fighters . . . to carry on the fight."
What is the Democratic response to these latter judgments? Silence. The left wing of the party continues to insist on withdrawal now. The center of the party wants withdrawal on a vaguer timetable.
Bush, on other hand, understands that the only acceptable exit strategy is victory. (If, as Woodward reports, he's been bolstered in that view by Henry Kissinger, then good for Henry. Invite him to the Oval Office more often!) To that end, Bush should do more. He should send substantially more troops and insist on a change of strategy to allow a real counterinsurgency and prevent civil war. But at least he's staying and fighting. And the great majority of Republicans are standing with him. The Democrats, as Bush has put it, "offer nothing but criticism and obstruction, and endless second-guessing. The party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut-and-run."
So there really is a profound difference between the parties, as Democrats are happy to acknowledge, since they think Iraq is a winning issue for them. The Democratic talking point is this: We're against Bush on Iraq, but we are as resolute as Bush in the real war on terror (understood by them to exclude Iraq). Except that they're not.
That's why last week's votes in Congress on the detainees legislation were so significant. The legislation had nothing to do with Iraq. It was a "pure" war-on-terror vote. And the parties split. Three-quarters of the Democrats in the House and Senate stood with the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union for more rights for al Qaeda detainees, and against legislation supported by the Bush administration (as well as by John McCain and Joe Lieberman). Some Democrats in competitive races--such as Rep. Harold Ford, running for the Senate in Tennessee--supported the legislation. But it remains the case that a vote for Democrats is a vote for congressional leaders committed to kinder and gentler treatment of terrorists.
No wonder voters think the country will be safer from terrorism if the GOP retains control of Congress. And no wonder that focus groups--according to the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner--show that "attacks on Democrats for opposing any effort to stop terrorists . . . were highly effective." The Democratic pollsters recommended countering the attacks forcefully. But how? There are votes, in black and white in the Congressional Record, ready to be used in campaign ads.
The most important front in the confrontation with terror-sponsoring, WMD-seeking Islamic jihadism in the next two years may well be Iran. Republicans are viewed by a 12-point margin as the party that would be more likely to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We have been critical of the Bush administration's lassitude in attending to this task. But with sand in the diplomatic hourglass running out, voters can fairly be asked: Would Bush have more help in denying Ahmadinejad nuclear weapons from a Congress controlled by Republicans or by Democrats (whose main suggestion has been to cozy up to Iran without insisting that it verifiably suspend its nuclear program)?
Off-year elections--especially when one party controls the presidency and Congress--are almost always dominated by the expression of grievances with that party's performance. The Bush administration and the congressional leadership have given cause for grievance. But the choice is so stark this November that grievances should be put aside--if Republicans have the nerve to continue to clarify the choice over the next month. Last week was a good start.