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Partisan Retreat

Our inevitable withdrawal from Iraq could poison American politics for a generation.

A few months ago, in a packed, stuffy room atop a hotel in downtown Washington, a prominent speaker made a startling remark. Even more startling, no one in the audience seemed startled.

The audience was a predominantly conservative crowd assembled by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a right-of-center think tank. The speaker was Bernard Lewis, a doyen of Western Islamic studies and a man widely admired on the right for his prescient warnings about radical Islam. (Among his writings is a 1990 article for this magazine, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”) Having spoken on “The Challenge of Islam,” he was asked how things were going in Iraq. He replied that conditions had improved there and would continue to improve. “Unless,” he added, “we are betrayed from within.”

No one showed surprise or discomfort. The session flowed on. But wait. Unless we are betrayed from within? Unpack that phrase, and then unpack the bland reaction to it, and you have a glimpse of one of the ugliest potential outcomes of an already plenty ugly war: a long-term, low-level, persistent civil conflict—not in Iraq, but in America.

In the annals of modern polling, the Iraq War has been unique in the degree to which it has split America along party lines. “There’s nothing even close,” says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

We think of the Vietnam War as controversial, but it was much more controversial within the two parties than between them. The partisan gap in support for the war rarely exceeded 10 percentage points, and averaged closer to 5. The Korean conflict in the 1950s, the military action in Kosovo in the 1990s, and the use of force in Afghanistan were barely more controversial, with the parties usually only 10 to 15 points apart. Even the Gulf War, for all the Democrats’ misgivings, saw partisan disagreement averaging only about 20 percentage points.

The Iraq War has been something else again. It got off on a partisan footing, with support from virtually all of the Republicans in Congress but only a minority of the Democrats. Then it turned even more partisan. By mid-2004, the difference between Republican and Democratic public support for the war had reached about 60 percentage points. Indeed, many of the partisans were living in separate realities. In 2006 polling, only about a fifth of Democrats recalled ever having supported the war, though in fact, almost half had supported it before the invasion. Meanwhile, almost a third of Republicans thought weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and another third said the weapons existed but hadn’t been found.

As painful and polarizing as party-line warfare has been, however, a party-line retreat would be worse. Many Republicans believe victory (however defined) is a matter of American resolve. Quite a few think that President Bush’s new strategy is working but that Democrats won’t admit it. They think Democrats are intentionally undermining the war effort, in order to improve their own political prospects by giving President Bush and the Republicans—oh, and the country—a black eye.

So begins the narrative of betrayal: the “stab in the back” narrative, as its historical precedents (most famously in interwar Germany) have been called. “We never really lost,” goes this narrative. “We defeated ourselves.” Or, in the really toxic version: “Some of us defeated the rest.” This kind of narrative, if it develops a popular following, can poison politics for a generation.

We can assume that if the Iraq War ends badly, some Republican hard- liners, amplified by conservative talk radio, will accuse the Democrats of perfidy. The question is: Will the betrayal narrative find traction with the broader American public? In particular, will mainstream Republicans buy into it? Or will cooler heads prevail, so the country can heal and move on?

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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