The Politics of Quagmire

November 10, 2006 Topic: Society Regions: Americas Tags: Sociology

The Politics of Quagmire

Mini Teaser: The Republicans’ loss is not necessarily the Democrats’ gain.

by Author(s): Colin Dueck

In political terms, the war in Iraq seems to have followed what is now a familiar pattern in American history. A war initially undertaken in a remote location with a majority of the population's support and justified in sweeping and idealistic terms, turns into a frustrating military stalemate with continuing American casualties. Popular support for U.S. military intervention gradually but inexorably declines. The president who launched the war is politically damaged and finally paralyzed by the war's unpopularity. All of this happened, of course, to both Harry Truman in Korea and Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam; it appears to be happening to George W. Bush in Iraq.

The conventional wisdom is therefore that Iraq has become Bush's Vietnam and that it will ravage his party's electoral chances going into 2008, just as Vietnam ravaged the Democrats forty years earlier. But the differences between the cases are as important as the similarities, and politically speaking, the most important difference is that Bush is a Republican. Whatever the gop's current difficulties, the Democratic Party has deep and enduring foreign policy problems of its own, and those problems are not likely to disappear any time soon.

In 1950-52 as well as 1966-68, incumbent presidents, for leading the country into a seeming military quagmire, were punished by American voters. But the precise nature of the domestic political dynamic in those cases was somewhat different from the current situation. The Truman and Johnson Administrations each ultimately faced Republican presidential candidates in Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon who were capable of mounting winning challenges to existing policy. Both Eisenhower and Nixon possessed impeccable credentials as foreign policy hawks, the ability to convincingly convey strength and seriousness on national security matters and the political skill to straddle intra-party divisions as necessary. Moreover, neither candidate campaigned on a platform of straightforward withdrawal from Korea or Vietnam.

Instead, both campaigned on vague platforms that promised the preservation of national honor and success without really specifying how it would be achieved. Voters therefore did not support Ike in 1952, or Nixon in 1968, in simple opposition to war overseas. Rather, they voted for these candidates out of a hope that either would somehow be able to extricate the United States from military entanglements without defeat or dishonor. Each candidate's partisan and personal credentials on national security were a critical component in permitting this hope.

The same conditions do not really exist at this time for the Democrats. Ever since 2001, the Democratic Party has given little indication of its ability to come up with any sort of coherent approach toward national security. Part of this, of course, is the natural result of being out of office and in the minority, but part of it is also the result of deep divisions and dilemmas within the Democratic Party over defense and foreign policy. The Democratic Party's foreign policy factions come in every shape and size: committed institutionalists, hawkish idealists, anti-war activists, sensible realists. But these factions are not of equal importance politically, and insofar as there is now an ideological center of gravity within the Democratic Party, it is skeptical of the use of force, virulently opposed to whatever Bush proposes and attached to the abstract idea of multilateralism with an almost theological fervor. This is not exactly a strong political or conceptual base from which to build a serious challenge to existing policies.

Certainly it is not comparable to the position that Republicans held during Korea and Vietnam. To have a Republican president leading the country in an admittedly unpopular war is therefore simply not the same thing politically as having a Democratic president in the same position. The political fallout for a Democratic executive in such a situation is bound to be more severe. Democrats may complain that this is unfair, but it is increasingly a problem of their own making. For well over thirty years now, the activist base of the Democratic Party has been reflexively suspicious of U.S. military power, and the American public knows it. Ned Lamont's primary victory over Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) epitomizes the continuing dissatisfaction of the Democratic base with hawkish candidates. Yet the majority of voters in America tend to be attracted to politicians that convey a clear readiness to protect their country. Democratic leaders therefore face a perennial political challenge with relation to national security issues in that they must constantly prove their credentials on matters of national defense without entirely alienating their own core supporters. Politicians who are truly hawkish are unlikely to win the Democratic nomination for president in the first place, while those who are capable of winning the nomination must satisfy their party's liberal base, which leaves them appearing insufficiently "strong" on security issues for a national audience. In theory, the problem might be solved by nominating for president a Democrat with a record of military service, but in practice-as the 2004 election demonstrated-voters do not view such service as a complete substitute for a clear and palatable position on the issues.

Strength on national security is usually taken as a given for Republicans. This, of course, does not mean that Republicans are invulnerable to criticism on these issues; the war in Iraq is a case in point. Prior to Iraq, for decades in fact, Republicans held a clear and overwhelming advantage on issues of national security because of a kind of unspoken compact between the gop and American voters. The compact was that the Republican Party in particular would be trusted to protect the nation's security, and in return Republicans were expected to demonstrate not only toughness but also competence and prudence on basic questions of war and peace.

The GOP's foreign policy toughness is not currently in question, but as a result of a series of baffling mistakes in Iraq, its foreign policy prudence is. The only question is whether these mistakes have completely destroyed the Republican Party's traditional political edge on issues of national security.

Iraq certainly presents a political problem for the Republican Party, but not for the reasons usually cited. As General George S. Patton recognized, the American public will tolerate messiness, casualties and moral ambiguity in its wars, but it will not tolerate failure. All of the bloodshed, costs and ambiguities currently associated with Iraq would be accepted much more readily by the American people if there were clear signs of success on the ground-the kind easily reported on the evening news. This lack of evident success is endemic to wars of counter-insurgency, which is one of the reasons democracies have a hard time fighting them. Yet in the case of Iraq, the Bush Administration compounded the inherent difficulties of postwar reconstruction through a lack of careful planning. The irony is that now, as the U.S. military improves its counter-insurgency capabilities, the American public's patience for this war is running out.

In this particular sense there really are parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. The Bush Administration also made the mistake of defining the war's purposes in such grandiose terms-namely, as kick-starting the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East-that it would hardly be surprising if the outcome fell short of expectations. Consequently a sense of disillusionment has settled in within the United States as it turns out that Iraq is less ready to transition into a stable liberal democracy than the administration both had hoped and suggested.

Moreover, the nature of the conflict itself has changed as Iraq's sectarian civil war becomes increasingly lethal. For the Bush Administration "staying the course" may still be the right policy, but politically speaking it is going to be more and more difficult to sustain without clear indications that the war is being won-indications that depend upon local events that cannot be entirely controlled by the United States. Some Republicans have responded in varying degrees by staking out positions that are critical of the administration. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has criticized the administration for committing insufficient effort to the war over the past three and a half years. Sen. Chuck Hagel (r-ne) goes further and questions the premises of the administration's whole approach, as seen in his conversation with The National Interest (Summer 2006). Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) went the furthest by joining Democrats in calling for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. Most Republicans, however, remain generally supportive of the president on this issue, which still unites conservatives more than it divides them.

If Iraq has turned into a political problem for the Republican Party, it has not necessarily turned into a winning issue for the Democrats. In fact the issue of Iraq places the Democratic Party as a whole on the horns of a peculiarly painful dilemma.

Democrats have three basic alternatives for Iraq. These can be called Bush-lite, McGovernite and Clintonian (with reference to Bill, not Hillary). First, Democrats have the option of calling for continued and unflinching support of the war in Iraq while criticizing the administration on specific tactics and decisions: the Bush-lite option. Second, they can call for immediate disengagement: the McGovernite route. Third, they can call for gradual but unspecified U.S. troop withdrawal: a Clintonian response, in its nimble attempt to split the difference politically.

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