Political Pulse June 2005

Second Thoughts on Iraq

Americans hear news of continuing violence in Iraq and wonder what, exactly, is being accomplished.
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This year is beginning to look like a turning point for the United States in Iraq. It's something like 1968 was for the U.S. in Vietnam: the year that Americans began to lose confidence in the mission. That parallel is ironic, because 1968 began with a political disaster for the U.S. in Vietnam—the Tet offensive, which started on January 30. But 2005 began with a political triumph for the U.S. in Iraq—the Iraqi election of January 30.

Americans were encouraged by the election. President Bush said in his State of the Union address a few days later, "We will succeed because the Iraqi people value their own liberty—as they showed the world." Iraq was getting its own government; the end seemed to be in sight.

In February, most Americans thought that things were going well in Iraq. Now, with more than 1,700 Americans killed in the war, the public's mood has soured. In the New York Times/CBS News poll of mid-June, 60 percent said that U.S. efforts to bring stability and order were going badly. The problem was not just the losses. It's the mission.

Critics say there's no plan. The administration has "failed to articulate a success strategy in Iraq," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said last month. Bush claims he's doing that. "Our strategy is clear," the president said at the U.S. Naval Academy on May 27. "We will train Iraqi forces so they can take the fight to the enemy and defend their own country, and then our troops will come home with the honor they have earned."

The public appears to be losing confidence in that strategy. In the Times/CBS poll, only 37 percent of respondents approved of the president's handling of Iraq. Fifty-nine percent disapproved.

Americans hear news of continuing violence and disorder and wonder what, exactly, is being accomplished. Moreover, the story of every American killed usually dominates local news coverage for days. That appears to be the reason why Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative North Carolina Republican, had a change of heart. In 2002, he voted to authorize war in Iraq. In 2003, Jones demanded that the House cafeteria relabel its french fries. "Whenever anyone orders 'freedom fries,' " he said just before the war, "I hope they think about our men and women who are serving this great nation."

Rep. Jones thinks about those men and women a lot. He has three major military bases in his district. He has written more than 1,400 letters to families who have suffered losses in Iraq. He displays photographs of fallen soldiers outside his congressional office.

And he has changed his approach. "After 1,700 deaths, over 12,000 wounded, and $200 billion spent," Jones said at a press conference last week, "we believe it is time to have this debate and this discussion" on a resolution calling for the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq by October 1, 2006. The resolution is co-sponsored by two Democrats and an anti-war Republican. Earlier this month, the House International Relations Committee voted 32-9 to call on Bush to develop an exit strategy in Iraq. Thirteen committee Republicans voted for the resolution.

With news of steadily mounting casualties, and with no letup in the violence, the public is becoming disillusioned. In a Times/CBS poll taken in October 2004, shortly before the U.S. presidential election, most Americans believed that the United States did the right thing in going to war. Now a majority says that the U.S. should have stayed out.

The shift in the country's mood is leading more Americans to ask, How did we get into this mess in the first place? That disillusionment is bringing attention to the "Downing Street Memo," the leaked minutes of a July 2002 meeting in the offices of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, eight months before the war started.

The memo describes a high-ranking British intelligence official who had just returned from Washington with the conclusion, "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." The implication is that the Bush administration had already decided to go to war—before asking for a vote of Congress. Before going to the United Nations.

Democrats are beginning to see political opportunities in the Iraq issue. This month, Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., who is running for his state's open Senate seat next year, aired the first television commercial of the 2006 campaign. The subject? Iraq. The ad concludes, "Let's work hard to bring [U.S. troops] home soon and with honor."

In his new book, Squandered Victory, Larry Diamond, a former adviser to the U.S. occupation authorities in Iraq, reveals a confidential memo he wrote to Condoleezza Rice in April 2004. He warned the then-national security adviser, "If we do not develop soon a coherent counterinsurgency plan combining political and military, Iraqi and international initiatives, we will creep closer and closer to that tipping point, beyond which so many Iraqis sympathize with or join the insurgency that we cannot prevail at any bearable price."

Americans are willing to bear sacrifice as long as the government has a purpose and a strategy. That seemed clear when Iraqis voted in January. It's less clear now.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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