For Democrats, Another Iraq Moment
Just in time for tonight's debate in Las Vegas, Democrats on Capitol Hill are trying to push Iraq back to the center of the national discussion with new legislation intended to force President Bush to withdraw troops -- a measure he would be sure to veto if it were ever to arrive on his desk.
After two months in which violence in Iraq has declined sharply and the war has receded from the forefront of domestic debate, the latest measure could put it back on the agenda for the party's presidential candidates. The last Democratic debate focused more on what to do about Iran than Iraq and it will be interesting to see if Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and the others take up the matter when they take the stage tonight at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
The latest proposal, passed by the House last night on a narrow 218 to 203 vote, would provide $50 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a downpayment on the $196 billion Bush has requested for this fiscal year. But it would come with a now-familiar condition -- that Bush withdraw most U.S. troops, starting within 30 days and finishing by Dec. 15, 2008. The bill would also bar the president from sending any units to Iraq in the meantime that are not certified as "fully mission capable" and it would restrict interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects to those permitted by the U.S. Army Field Manual, in effect eliminating the extra latitude now given to the CIA.
Democrats gathering in Las Vegas would be better off putting money down on a string of hard-eights on the craps table than betting that this proposal will ever become law. Even if Senate Republicans do not block it with a filibuster, Bush certainly would veto it. And the debate in Iraq will return back to square one. So the question for Democratic presidential candidates becomes, what next? Should the Democratic Congress again back down and give Bush the money to run the war as it did last spring at the risk of aggravating the antiwar base frustrated by the party's inability to force a change in policy? Or should it refuse to pass the money at all and risk being accused of trying to "appease radical groups," as the White House put it yesterday, and undermining troops at a time that they seem to be gaining traction on the ground?
Iraq has faded a bit as the overarching issue it once was. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 29 percent rated it the single most important issue in determining the next president, down from 35 percent in September. The economy was the number two choice at 14 percent, up from 11 percent two months ago. Health care was named by 13 percent, the only other issue in double-digits. Another telling indicator of changing concerns was the public assessment of the economy -- just 35 percent rated it excellent or good, down seven points from April and the lowest in two years.
For another interesting indicator, look at the Web page of the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center think tank that has been a leading voice against the war; the main articles concern the farm bill, mortgage reform and Sudan, not Iraq. The top story on the Web page of the American Prospect, a prominent liberal magazine, focuses on Burma and below it are three pieces on Iran; amid others on private equity firms, the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Pat Robertson is a piece on the pitfalls of creating militias in Iraq.
The shifting political discussion reflects changing circumstances on the ground. Violence in Iraq is down, U.S. military casualties have fallen and, according to correspondents in Baghdad, life has begun to take on halting new signs of normalcy. The lack of nightly television shots of horrific suicide bombings may be diminishing some of the urgency of the issue in the domestic discussion back here. From the White House perspective, the progress in establishing security undermines any argument to change strategy now.
At the same time, as Tom Ricks writes in this morning's Post, the improving security situation has still not fostered much progress in political reconciliation by Iraqi officials. Without some sort of accommodation between the majority Shiite faction and the minority Sunnis over a host of thorny issues from local provincial elections to an oil distribution law, U.S. military officers worry that Iraq will miss the window of opportunity they seem to have now.
The Democrats might recognize the conundrum as they try to figure out what to do with this window of opportunity themselves.
-- Peter Baker
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