Iraq and the Democrats

Fragile as the recent improvement in security in Iraq may be, it poses a problem for Democrats, as I argue in a new column:

The big question is whether the improving security now speeds America’s exit from Iraq, or strengthens its commitment to stay. You can argue it both ways. Lower levels of violence give cover for a withdrawal of troops without seeming to betray Iraqi victims of the war. Alternatively, diminishing violence shows that larger forces were needed – at the very least, it undermines the claim that America’s presence is making things worse – and thus lends support to the view that America should stay until the job is done. Pushing the same way, improved security lessens the American electorate’s opposition to staying engaged: losing a war, not fighting one, is what the country cannot tolerate. As the news from Iraq has improved (and as news on the economy has worsened), the war has begun to slip down the list of issues that voters say most concern them.

The gruelling option I reluctantly advocated before – a large continuing military commitment, in support of more modest goals – looks a little more feasible. Without delay, it needs to be supplemented with efforts to restore and improve Iraq’s economy. Electricity supplies have reportedly improved, but provision of water and sewerage has not. The health and education systems are in disarray. One in three Iraqis is unemployed. If the improvement in security persists, it offers an opportunity to begin addressing these issues. The aim should be to capitalise on Iraqis’ perception that their situation is at last improving.

The better news, though, poses a challenge for Democrats as the election approaches. Opposition to the war has been their chief theme. This still commands broad and strong support, of course, but the intensity could continue to fade. Republicans will seek opportunities to accuse Democrats of wanting the US to fail, or of wishing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – and those charges will acquire some force if the view that the surge has worked takes hold. For Democrats, even putting the recent fall in violence in its correct context poses a political risk, because it can be portrayed as failing to recognise the military’s efforts and achievements. If the Republican presidential contenders have any sense, they will tread very carefully here – while hoping that Democrats fall into the trap and helping them to if the opportunity presents itself.

You can read the whole column here.