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The Dems’ Next War

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“It’s not a plan—it’s a cry of pain!” says Biden. “Jack sees his beloved military getting crushed by the burden and the weight of this war. He goes over to Walter Reed and sees these boys and he aches.” Biden goes on. “Jack thinks that there’s nothing retrievable in Iraq. There’s a lot of people I admire—hard-nosed guys like [Zbigniew] Brzezinski—who have concluded that, look, a civil war is inevitable; just figure out a way to contain it … But if you reach that conclusion, the question is, what’s Plan B? What are you going to do to diminish the prospects of this turning into a regional war?”

On some level, you might think that, for Democrats, Biden’s questions are merely academic. Although the party will soon control Congress, the military and diplomatic apparatuses still belong to Bush. So no matter how unified the Democrats emerge on Iraq, no matter how exacting and meticulous are their proposals, no matter how hard they push, the president still has it within his power to damn the torpedoes and plunge ahead. “It’s virtually impossible for a congressional party to formulate foreign policy,” Biden said. “All we get to do is react.”

Biden believes that, regarding Iraq, “it’s possible to turn those lemons into a palatable lemonade.”

Yet Biden also knows that the Democrats’ internal wrangling over Iraq has the potential to be explosively divisive, as the antiwar left and the Netroots make demands that party centrists may find extreme. And he knows that voters will be watching the party carefully to see which route it takes. There can be no doubt that the results of the 2006 midterms constitute a stinging and nearly total repudiation of Bush’s management of the war and his handling of foreign affairs more broadly. What they don’t amount to, though, is a ringing endorsement of Democratic leadership in those areas—not least because the party, by design, turned the campaign into a referendum on Bush and not into a choice between two competing visions of dealing with the world.

If the Democrats hope to translate their remarkable gains this year into a period of dominance, the essential victory is still to come: the White House in 2008. And for that win to happen, Democrats will need to overcome the longstanding doubts that voters have about them regarding national security. Like it or not, we still live in a dangerous time—an age of terror, even. And like it or not, cleaning up the mess in Iraq involves more than merely bugging out.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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