Ruminations from the Right: Republicans, Iraq and the 2008 Elections, Part I

In his innaugural biweekly column, Colin Dueck describes the Democrats as a vessel for discontent regarding the Iraq War. But will this be enough to win back the White House?

Editors Note: The following is the first installment of Colin Dueck's new regular column, Ruminations from the Right, which will appear every two weeks on National Interest online.

Republicans are in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position going into the 2008 presidential election. For the first time since 1964, they face the possibility that the average American voter will favor a Democratic candidate on precisely the issue that is supposed to be one of the Republicans' greatest strengths: national security policy. This is not due to any special credibility on the part of leading Democrats when it comes to foreign affairs. On the contrary, the Democratic Party has simply been able to act as a vessel for discontent regarding the Iraq War, and has done so without putting forward any particularly convincing or coherent policy alternative. The question is: Will this be enough to win back the White House?

The trends in popular support for the Iraq War all run in one direction-downward. A clear majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake, and that the time has come for at least a gradual U.S. withdrawal to begin. Conservative Republican voters still for the most part support the President on Iraq, but moderates, independents, conservative Democrats and liberals have long since deserted him on this issue. Opposition to Bush on Iraq, therefore, runs about two-to-one. The important point, however, is that overall public support for the war has moved incrementally but inexorably and steadily down. It is not American casualties in themselves that have caused this trend, but the sense of futility regarding the war's successful outcome.

General Petraeus has proven extremely capable in doing what he can to re-orient U.S. military operations in Iraq, but he has been dealt a bad hand and needs years rather than months for his approach to bear fruit. If the Petraeus approach had been employed in 2003-2004, it might have had time to work. Now, the American public's patience is running out. At this point it is hard to believe that any amount of tactical virtuosity will change the fact that various Iraqi paramilitary groups are determined to kill other Iraqis, along with U.S. soldiers, for several more years if necessary in their complex struggle for power. The existing Iraqi government is weak and ineffectual, and there are no signs of that changing either. This means that as long as American troops stay in large numbers, engaged in combat operations in Iraq, they will be wounded and killed at a similar rate to the past few years; and as long as American casualties continue, support for the war will decline from its already low level. The key variable, in other words, is the deterioration of popular support for the war within the United States.

When Richard Nixon faced a comparable situation during his first term in office, he summoned all of his considerable political and foreign policy skills to conduct what was essentially a fighting retreat from Vietnam. He engaged in tactical escalation to harass and bomb the North Vietnamese. He shored up the South Vietnamese government. He criticized the American political left as unpatriotic. Stylistically, he was aggressive. But at the same time, in practical terms, he withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam in large numbers. This combination of hawkish and dovish measures had the effect of rallying his supporters while stealing the rug out from under the Democrats. Nixon did not simply denounce the anti-war movement; he also co-opted it. His reward was to win 49 out of fifty states in 1972.

Bush has had this option open to him on multiple occasions since 2003-to declare victory and go home, as Nixon did. In a way, it is surprising that Bush has not already seized this alternative. To abandon Iraq now would no doubt leave that country to spiral into even greater violence, but the hard fact is that the American public would be unlikely to punish the President for extricating the United States from such a bloody and inconclusive mess. On the contrary, he would in all likelihood become more popular outside of his conservative base if he began to withdraw U.S. troops in earnest. But Bush appears to believe truly that Iraq is the crucial front in the War on Terror; that disengagement would be irresponsible; and that his decision will be justified by history. He is not tortured by self-doubt. More to the point, his leading priority is not so much the Republicans' chances in 2008, as it is the long-term prospect for success and vindication in the Middle East. Consequently he has not disengaged, but instead escalated the U.S. military effort. In effect, Bush has staked not only his presidency, but his party's future fortunes on Iraq.

Naturally this makes many congressional Republicans nervous. For GOP members up for re-election in 2008, especially those from swing states and close districts, Iraq is looking like absolute deadweight politically. Just over the past few days, Republican Senators Pete Domenici (NM), Richard Lugar (IN) and George Voinovich (OH) have joined Chuck Hagel (NE), John Warner (VA) and several GOP moderates in saying that something has to give by this fall. Congressional Republican support for Bush on this issue cannot continue indefinitely. The question is whether a sufficient (i.e. veto-proof) number of normally staunch GOP conservatives will go to Bush in the coming weeks and warn him that the clock has run out and that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq must begin.

Look for Part II of Republicans, Iraq and the 2008 Elections in the upcoming weeks.

Colin Dueck is an assistant professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs, George Mason University.