Democrat – Republican Consensus on Iraq

Today’s WaPo features a story by Jonathan Weisman and Anne E. Kornblut headlined “Democrats Refocus Message on Iraq After Military Gains” on A4. It paints a picture of a party scrambling to recover after receiving what amounts to “bad news” for their side.

Democratic leaders in Congress had planned to use August recess to raise the heat on Republicans to break with President Bush on the Iraq war. Instead, Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front, increasingly focusing their criticisms on what those military gains have not achieved: reconciliation among Iraq’s diverse political factions.

And now the Democrats, along with wavering Republicans, will face an advertising blitz from Bush supporters determined to remain on offense. A new pressure group, Freedom’s Watch, will unveil a month-long, $15 million television, radio and grass-roots campaign today designed to shore up support for Bush’s policies before the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, lays out a White House assessment of the war’s progress. The first installment of Petraeus’s testimony is scheduled to be delivered before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a fact both the administration and congressional Democrats say is simply a scheduling coincidence.

The leading Democratic candidates for the White House have fallen into line with the campaign to praise military progress while excoriating Iraqi leaders for their unwillingness to reach political accommodations that could end the sectarian warfare.

Readers will recall Majority Whip James Clyburn’s remarks last month that a positive report from Petraeus next month “would be a real big problem for us, no question about that.” There’s not much doubt that the Democrats, including all the major candidates for their 2008 presidential nomination, have staked their success on the war going badly and the ability to tie the Republican nominee to the Bush fiasco.

That said, the shift Weisman and Kornblut describe is hardly cynical but rather a reflection of reality. For years now, Bush and company have told us, correctly, that the war can not be won militarily; that the key to success was for the Iraqi government to establish legitimacy and demonstrate its effectiveness at providing security and basic services for the population.

Indeed, President Bush himself is saying much the same thing as the Democrats now. Sheryl Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg report that Bush is now going public with his frustrations with the Iraqi government.

When President Bush and Nuri Kamal al-Maliki stood side by side in Jordan last November, the president proclaimed the prime minister “the right guy for Iraq.” By Tuesday, that phrase had all but evaporated from Mr. Bush’s lexicon. Instead, Mr. Bush acknowledged “a certain level of frustration” with the Iraqi government’s failure to unify its warring ethnic factions. His comments at a meeting of North American leaders in Canada came just hours after the top American diplomat in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, called political progress in Iraq “extremely disappointing” and warned that United States support for the Maliki government did not come with a “blank check.”


Experts say Mr. Bush does not appear to be trying to force Mr. Maliki out, if only because there is no obvious alternative. Rather, they say, the president’s remarks are aimed at a domestic audience. Back in January, Mr. Bush sold the troop buildup to the country as a plan that would tamp down violence and create “political breathing space” to allow the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to create a unity government.

What appears to be happening is a consensus among the leadership of both parties.

Most everyone acknowledges that the Surge seems to be having significant success but it’s not sustainable for more than a few more months at best. Progress on the political front is virtually non-existent on the national level; indeed, things may well be moving in the wrong direction. There are limited signs that things are getting better at the tribal level but reviews are decidedly mixed as to whether that will make national consensus more or less difficult.

While the Democrats are, by and large, more ready to throw in the towel than their GOP counterparts, their leadership understands that “Bring the Troops Home Now” is a mere slogan that can not be turned into reality without disastrous consequences. Conversely, most Republicans seem to agree that winning the war, at least as defined by anything like the original goals, is vanishingly unlikely given the window afforded by public opinion and troop strength.

The question, then, is what to do about all this. And no one seems to have any good answers.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Congress, Iraq War, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. M. Murcek says:

    The hard left part of the dem base is not going to react well to finding out that retreat and defeat is off the table…

  2. Ugh says:

    Actually, we’ve arrived at defeat (in Iraq) now, the only question is how long until retreat.

  3. Tlaloc says:

    Most everyone acknowledges that the Surge seems to be having significant success…

    Unless you look at the numbers. if you do that there is no indication of significant success at all. Casualties among either Iraqis or american troops have not significantly declined. Attacks in baghdad are down but the insurgents have just moved to other areas as with each of our previous “surges.”

    The people saying the surge is working are coincidentally people who either are personally invested in it working, or the same people who advocated our invasion in the first place because the WMD intelligence was a “slam dunk.”

    You’d think four years later we’d learn not to trust the William Kristol’s of the world.

  4. legion says:

    Indeed, Tlaloc. In fact, a more truthful version of James’ statement would be: “Most everyone agrees that Army propaganda briefings describe the Surge as having significant success.”

  5. Tlaloc says:

    By the way if you want to see the casualty figures you can look at

    Or you can look here where I’ve plotted them for you:


  6. Steven Donegal says:

    There is only one ultimate answer to the Iraq dilemma:

    Declare Victory and Go Home.

    That is what will happen at some point. Since the Victory we want (stable government that hates Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas) isn’t going to happen in any of our lifetimes, we will ultimately have to decide that Victory has occurred. This is why I have been mildly optimistic about the surge. If we can put enough troops in to reduce the amount of visible violence, it will give us the opportunity to Declare Victory and Go Home regardless of the political progress of the Iraqis. The current distancing of the US from the Maliki gov’t and a positive report from Petraeus will provide a great opportunity to implement the Declared Victory.

  7. whippoorwil says:

    It is fascinating to watch the political hand wringing by both parties over “The Surge”. Has it worked, has it failed and what does it all mean. Nothing is new, the US military has been doing surges out the yazoo from day one. Its the same every time. IE… more troops in X location–less violence in X location as long as troops stay which is never forever. Then iraqi troops take over and all hell breaks loose and the iraqi government sucks it’s thumb. The Iraqi people, I believe, have one thing in common with the american people. Neither of us would submit ourselves to the will and whim of foreign occupiers, even if it was for our own good.