The Dems’ Next War

Illustration by Demetrios Psillos

In the closing days of a campaign that would consign his party to minority status in Congress and himself to lame-duckhood, George W. Bush addressed the election’s defining issue with a consistent refrain. When it came to the war in Iraq, Bush declared, “the Democrats have no plan for victory. They have no idea how to win. Harsh criticism is not a plan for victory.”

Bush’s argument was desperate, flailing, and, of course, ultimately futile. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have the ring of truth about it. Indeed, throughout the campaign, and especially in its final month, Democrats had placed front and center their critique of the administration’s catastrophic mishandling of the war. They had called incessantly, loudly, vaguely, for a “change of course” in Iraq. And they had demanded (it turns out, hallelujah, effectively) the pomaded head of Donald Rumsfeld on a platter. What they hadn’t done by any stretch, however, was lay out a plausible and coherent alternative to Bush’s lunatic stay-the-course-ism.

For an opposition party that controls no branch of government—one that could argue credibly that it bore little responsibility for getting us into Iraq and had even less capacity to get us out—such a strategy had much to commend it, at least politically. QED. Yet the very success of that strategy on November 7 rendered it inoperative for the future. As both a political and practical matter, from the moment the Democrats take control of the House and Senate in January, they will be under pressure to come up with a unified approach to bringing America’s calamitous adventure with Iraq to a non-apocalyptic end. How and whether the Democrats rise to that challenge will have large implications for the party’s putative resurgence—and the early signs are that the process may not be very pretty.

To understand why, you need only spend a little time reflecting on Joe Biden and Jack Murtha. No Democratic senator has been more visible (and voluble) on Iraq than Biden. And no Democratic congressman has a higher national profile on the issue than Murtha. But when I talked to Biden the other day, he instantly put a mile’s distance between them. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think there isn’t a real distinction between Jack Murtha and Joe Biden,” he said. “Jack and a number of other Democrats, more in the House than the Senate, have reached the conclusion that Iraq is lost; that there is no way to turn lemons into even a bitter lemonade. And then there are those of us who still think that if real corrective action is taken quickly, it’s possible to turn those lemons into a palatable lemonade—not good-tasting but palatable.”

Last spring, Biden and Les Gelb, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, put forward a detailed plan for doing just that. In outline, the plan calls for giving up the notion that a Western-style liberal democracy can be achieved in Iraq—and instead forging a settlement whereby the nation would be turned into a loose federation of three regions dominated, respectively, by the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. To secure the support of the Sunnis, they would be guaranteed a proportional share of Iraq’s oil revenues. The U.S. would convene a regional summit and seek to sign up Syria, Iran, and other neighboring countries to a nonaggression pact. International peacekeepers would be enlisted to patrol hot zones such as Baghdad; a new reconstruction program would be started. And American troops would be drawn down gradually throughout 2007—though with no date-certain specified at the outset for withdrawal.

Even critics of Biden’s plan, who fear that dividing Iraq in three is a recipe for sectarian mayhem, praise its seriousness and rigor. Biden tells me he’s convinced—“I don’t have any inside information, but I’d be shocked if this isn’t true”—that many of its elements are being incorporated by the Iraq Study Group, the highly touted task force headed by Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton that will probably release its recommendations in the next few weeks. Biden says he considers the ISG a cause for hope, “because it might be the cocoon out of which comes a bipartisan agreement that gets the president to change course.” In fact, he is already working feverishly behind the scenes to stitch together a cross-party consensus in the Senate— talking to Republicans such as Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, and John Warner—around something like his plan.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, however, the picture is rather different. There, Murtha is gearing up for a bruising fight with Maryland congressman Steny Hoyer for the job of House majority leader. That Murtha is a tenable candidate at all owes almost entirely to his decision, a year ago, to announce that he favored the immediate pullout of American troops from Iraq—a decision that, coming from a conservative, 74-year-old veteran with close ties to the military, carried enormous political weight. For a time, Murtha’s “plan” for redeployment drove certain Democratic leaders (including Nancy Pelosi) to distraction; today, his prescience makes him a seminal figure, a kind of seer. But when I tried to figure out exactly what the plan consisted of, I discovered there was nothing beyond a call to bring home troops by “the earliest practicable date.”

“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.


The Dems’ Next War