Today's Washington Times gleefully reports how Cindy Sheehan and other opponents of the war in Iraq "routed the leaders of the new House Democratic majority from their press conference where they attempted to present their legislative agenda." Their complaint: no discussion at all of how to end American involvement in Iraq by the Democratic Congressional leadership.
The Democrats have a problem. The Iraq Study Group (ISG) did not provide an actionable blueprint for conducting a "phased withdrawal" and while its criticisms of how the Bush Administration has prosecuted the war did cause some damage, the president has by no means been neutralized. Don Rumsfeld is long gone from the Pentagon. As I noted in November as part of a National Review symposium:
"By accepting Don Rumsfeld's resignation, President Bush has nullified the first plank of the Democratic agenda on national security . . . and forces the Democrats . . . to move to point number two-outlining their plan for achieving success in Iraq."
This accelerates what I have termed the "Orange Revolution meltdown clock" for the Democrats. In opposition, it was quite easy for Joe Lieberman, Jim Webb, Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman to agree that Rumsfeld should go-but much more difficult, if not outright impossible, for all of them-as the new legislative majority-to coalesce around a common strategy.
Without an ISG plan to rally around, instead of a unified Democratic position, we are likely to return to the status quo that existed in the previous Congress-individual Democrats offering their own competing plans and visions for action, joined together by general criticism of the administration. In response, the administration has already begun to recover its equilibrium and is likely to forge together enough of a bipartisan coalition to support some sort of "final push to victory" in 2007. But what is not likely to emerge is any sort of consensus that Republicans and Democrats have an obligation to put aside partisan differences with an eye to, as Dimitri Simes advocates in this current issue of TNI, avoid "burdening the next administration with Iraq as a defining issue in American foreign policy."
Democrats may well have success this fall simply by picking up on public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, but as long as they give the impression of having no serious or clear alternative on national security they will continue to be at a long-term disadvantage to Republicans on these issues. . . . American troops will probably still be fighting in Iraq in 2008. If circumstances do not change dramatically on the ground, then opposition to the war and calls for disengagement from within the United States will only grow stronger. Yet this will not change the fundamental paradox of the political situation: Republicans are tied to an increasingly unpopular war, but the very issue of war raises perennial Democratic weaknesses and divisions that tend to redound in favor of Republicans.
Some on the Left are concerned that, as a result, most Democrats are unwilling to seriously change the status quo. The Nation editorialized: "Some early signs are disturbing. One came when Bush casually allowed that US Army troop strength should be permanently expanded by 40,000 to 90,000--not more troops for Iraq but more troops to fight the next war. Many Democrats nodded approvingly. . . . Forget the facts. Nobody in elite political circles wants to sound ‘soft'on defense. In other words, Iraq is a disaster, but let's give the Pentagon another $80 billion to beef up for the next one."
And herein lies another danger. During the 1980s, Democrats who opposed sending aid to the Nicaraguan contras, in order not to appear "soft on Communism", intensified their support for the mujaheddin in Afghanistan so as to bolster their national security credentials. Might not Democrats now, particularly those who want to avoid the label of "cut and run" on Iraq, decide that an even more hawkish, bellicose stance vis-à-vis Iran is the best way forward? This could end up complicating (and limiting) U.S. freedom of action to find a creative solution to the Iranian nuclear imbroglio whereby, in the pursuit of securing one's domestic political base, politicians foreclose maneuvering room in the international arena. After all, once broad b-partisan Congressional resolutions, in 1998 and 2002, had defined Saddam Hussein as a terrorist with a weapons of mass destruction capability, it became much harder to argue for continuing with containment or to suddenly assign Hussein a much lower threat priority than, say, Iran or North Korea.
Democrats swept the midterms as the party offering alternatives to the status quo. But we don't seem to be off to a good start.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.