It is almost surreal to watch the 2006 campaign wind down to its conclusion. The one overriding issue is the war in Iraq. Polls reflect deep public unhappiness with the course of the war, and Democrats will most likely reap the benefit of this frustration. And yet neither party offers a plausible strategy going forward; in fact, both parties seem eager to avoid the issue altogether.
Most of the political ads this year involved corruption in Washington, gas prices, stem cell research, personal attacks, gay marriage and illegal immigration. All (even some of the personal attacks) are legitimate campaign issues, but the elephant in the room is Iraq.
For the Democrats, avoiding seriousness on foreign threats has become part of their DNA. Since Vietnam (and Vietnam is the principal scaffolding of their mental architecture), they have cried "quagmire" from the first minutes we've exchanged fire with any adversary. The New York Times dubbed Afghanistan a quagmire after 10 days of fighting. Democrats in Congress were calling the Iraq campaign a quagmire when our troops paused for a couple of days during their drive to Baghdad to wait out a sandstorm. Democrats seek "exit strategies" from wars. They do not seek victory.
The Democrats' wisdom on the Iraq question has been summarized in the past few weeks by two of their star players. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told a "60 Minutes" audience that we should simply withdraw from Iraq. When Leslie Stahl asked about the terrorists in Iraq, Pelosi acknowledged their presence, but dismissed it, saying, "But that doesn't mean we stay there. They'll stay there as long as we're there. They're there because we're there."
And Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., betrayed the contempt he has always harbored for our military by suggesting that only those who fail to study hard wind up "stuck in Iraq." (For the record, even if Kerry (SET ITAL) did (END ITAL) intend, as he claims, to skewer President Bush but not the troops, the little joke is still revealing. He regards Iraq as President Bush's problem, not America's.)
The Democrats' robotic approach to foreign policy challenges is familiar: appeasement, negotiation, deference to the United Nations, and, where a commitment has already been undertaken, retreat.
But what about the Republicans? It's hard to motivate your base with a rallying cry of "continue to do too little to win." For more than two years it has been evident that though millions of Iraqis desire democracy enough to take their lives in their hands to vote, the violence unleashed by a few has prevented a government from functioning.
The Iraqis need and want one thing above all others: security, which is what anyone would want in similar circumstances. Yet the Bush administration has adamantly insisted that we need no more troops in Iraq. How can this be? If the level of violence is unrelated to the number of American troops, why do we have 130,000 there? Why not 30,000? Recently, when American troops were withdrawn from Mosul to help pacify Baghdad, violence in Mosul spiked.
It may be that the administration is worried about the political cost of asking for and deploying more troops to Iraq. Certainly an additional call up of reserves or redeployment of other troops will cause hardship. But equally surely the consequences of not doing so are infinitely worse. The president's party is about to suffer a smackdown at the polls due to the slow-motion defeat in Iraq. But domestic effects pale in comparison with the damage defeat there will do to America in the world.
Because we haven't succeeded in Iraq, Hizbollah, Iran's cat's paw in Lebanon, launched a war against Israel that simultaneously torpedoed hopes for a free Lebanon. The other members of the Axis of Evil North Korea and Iran have felt free to stick their nuclear thumbs in our eyes. Al Qaeda's terrorists have taken heart from our perceived troubles in Iraq. They have always believed that we lack the stomach for real conflict and will crumble at the first big push.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur said it best: "In war, there is no substitute for victory." In this election cycle, the Democrats offer defeat, and the Republicans seem to have suffered a bad stall.