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.
Rather than rebut O'Hanlon and Pollack's evidence of progress in Anbar, the reduction in (still high) civilian fatality rates, and the growing capability, integration, and accountability of Iraqi army units, the Progress Report said the authors were "cherry-picking anecdotal signs of progress in order to justify continuing a war they supported from the beginning." Rather than acknowledge the extraordinary alliance between coalition forces and the tribal sheikhs who rule Anbar, the Progress Report redirected attention to the problems facing the Iraqi national government--problems O'Hanlon and Pollack acknowledge in their op-ed. And rather than assuming its opponents argue in good faith, the Progress Report accused O'Hanlon and Pollack of "providing political cover for the administration's misguided war policies."
And so it goes. In recent days, however, surge critics seem to be performing the Iraq shuffle more frequently. A well-publicized instance came on July 27, when Democratic congresswoman Nancy Boyda of Kansas stormed out of a House Armed Services Committee hearing in which Gen. Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, and Lawrence Korb, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, gave divergent takes on the surge. Keane reported on the progress he had seen in mixed Sunni/Shiite neighborhoods during a recent trip to Baghdad. It is Gen. Petraeus's strategy of securing the Iraqi population that is responsible for such progress, Keane said.
"There was only so much you could take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while," Boyda said when she returned to the hearing. "So I think I am back and maybe can articulate some things--after so much of the frustration of having to listen to what we listened to. But let me first just say that the description of Iraq as in some way or another that it's a place that I might take the family for a vacation--things are going so well--those kinds of comments will in fact show up in the media and further divide this country instead of saying, 'Here's the reality of the problem.'"
General Keane hadn't recommended Iraq as a vacation spot. But that did not stop Boyda from indulging in hyperbole and suggesting his evidence of progress would "further divide this country." The implication is that the country would unify if only Gen. Keane and others who see encouraging signs would be quiet--a corrosive sentiment in a democracy sustained through public debate.
When conversation turns to the implications of American withdrawal from Iraq, the dance intensifies. The conservative blogosphere was abuzz last week over an interview the legendary New York Times war correspondent John F. Burns, who has been reporting from Iraq since 2002, gave to Hugh Hewitt. Burns told Hewitt that if America were to withdraw precipitously from Iraq, up to a million Iraqis might die in the ensuing violence. A recent Time cover story on withdrawal concluded that if the Americans left, "Iraq could bleed like the former Yugoslavia did from 1992 to 1995, when 250,000 perished." Yet antiwar senator John Kerry has denied even the possibility that such mass killing might occur, and antiwar senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says even if such slaughter is possible, it shouldn't factor into decisions over withdrawal.
"If that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces," Obama recently told the Associated Press, "then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now--where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife--which we haven't done. We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven't done. Those of us who care about Darfur don't think it would be a good idea." Here Obama sets an impossible standard for humanitarian intervention. By his logic, America should not act to prevent mass slaughter in a country it has occupied since 2003 unless it is willing to intervene wherever ethnic or sectarian killing may be taking place.
The antiwar reaction to the O'Hanlon/Pollack op-ed, and to the likely consequences of American withdrawal, suggest what will happen come September, when Petraeus reports to Congress. Those who want to leave Iraq as quickly as possible will ignore contrary evidence. They will attempt to shift the debate onto the ground where they are strongest. They will attack the messenger. For those most committed to American withdrawal from Iraq, no amount of positive reporting will matter. They will be too busy dancing the Iraq shuffle.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.