Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Divide and conquer: Bush's new strategy to win in Iraq and at home

From the AP:

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday defended her vote to authorize war in Iraq amid growing unease among liberal Democrats who could determine the potential 2008 presidential candidate's future.

"I take responsibility for my vote, and I, along with a majority of Americans, expect the president and his administration to take responsibility for the false assurances, faulty evidence and mismanagement of the war," the New York senator said in a lengthy letter to thousands of people who have written her about the war.

At the same time, she said the United States must "finish what it started" in Iraq.

I tend to agree. Bush must take responsibility for what he's done, for the mess he's gotten America into. He needs to be held accountable both for the "deliberate deceit" of the pre-war period and for the gross mismanagement of the war itself (see here). But he also needs to do the right thing, that is, to finish the job properly, that is, to ensure that Iraq is secure and stable and on a course to viable, long-term self-governance.

In theory, I'm with Hillary.

Whether or not America should be in Iraq, America is in Iraq, and that's the truth that matters most.

But here's the big problem: Is Bush even capable of finishing what he started? He may still be committed to the lofty goal of a stable, democratic Iraq and the even loftier goal of a democratic revolution in the Middle East, but it seems to me that he's torn between his stubborn pursuit of those goals on the one hand and domestic political reality on the other, namely, his own sagging approval ratings and next year's midterm elections.

And he's trying to sail between that Scylla and that Charybdis even as his own mismanagement of the war and the revelation of the untruths that sustained it hindered his stubborn pursuit of those goals and turned domestic political reality against him. All of which leaves him with no one to blame but himself. He's blown it over here and over there, and that's some accomplishment.

So what will he do? Just what he's been doing lately and what he's generally done throughout his presidency. Attack his opponents for partisan political purposes while appropriating their ideas for partisan political purposes.

And spin, spin, spin. Change the narrative, the framing of the story. Withdraw large numbers of troops to take the issue away from Democrats and carry on the war by other means. That is, submit to domestic political reality and pursue those lofty goals in Iraq.

That's the strategy. For now. (It may change.) Again, Bush has been forced into this risky maneuver by his own hand. But he can only reverse the trend over here and over there by maneuvering delicately between a war that isn't going well on one side and a withdrawal of U.S. forces that would send Iraq into civil war and anarchy on the other.

Democrats -- and the still-hawkish Hillary in particular -- need to see that this is what's going on, that this is Bush's attempt to salvage his presidency (and the Republican Party over here and Iraqi democracy over there). The danger is that Democrats are splitting (or have split) into two camps, the hawks (finish the job) and the doves (withdraw now). But those two camps reflect the Scylla and the Charybdis, the two extremes, the thesis and the antithesis. Bush will try to sail through while blasting away at the Democrats on both extremes, hoping that he wins approval over here secures his legacy over there.

He may not succeed. After all, the "new" war in Iraq may not go well and Iraq may yet descend into civil war and anarchy. But it's more likely that he'll succeed politically and that Iraq will become a win-win for him. Here's what I wrote in a recent post: "If Iraq succeeds, with success defined broadly as stable self-governance that is more or less democratic, Bush can take all the credit (the war was worth it, see?). If Iraq fails, with failure defined as civil war and/or anarchy, Bush can blame the Iraqis themselves (the war was worth it, but those good-for-nothing Iraqis let us down, see?). And if Iraq ends up somewhere between success and failure, which seems likely, Bush can spin whatever story makes him look good and helps him stick it to his opponents."

Whatever his messianic idealism, Bush is trying to set the Democrats up for inevitable failure by sailing right through the yawning chasm of their disparate and at times warring elements. It's not enough to say that the troops must be withdrawn or that the job must be finished. Democrats must set the tone, define the terms, and unite in response to the next phase of Bush's campaign over here. But first they must understand what he's trying to do, what the new strategy is. A failure do that could result in this incredibly unpopular president rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his own self-made demise.

Is that horrible possibility enough for Democrats to get their act together?

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