Commentary: Retreat and defeat not an option

WASHINGTON -- After this week's elections in Iraq, will our national debate be about what the United States should do to salvage the best outcome it can from a war policy that has been riddled with errors and miscalculations? Or will we mostly di...

WASHINGTON -- After this week's elections in Iraq, will our national debate be about what the United States should do to salvage the best outcome it can from a war policy that has been riddled with errors and miscalculations? Or will we mostly discuss how politicians should position themselves on the war?

Here's a bet on the triumph of spin. Politicians, especially Dem-ocrats, will be discouraged from saying what they really believe about Iraq for fear of offending "swing voters." Slogans about "victory" and "defeatism" will be thrown around promiscuously.

The administration's defenders have enjoyed short-term political success by turning attention away from Bush's Iraq policies and toward divisions in the Democratic Party on the subject. The Republicans particularly enjoyed assailing Democrats who have called for the rapid withdrawal of American troops.

The neat summary of the new Republican home-front offensive was the tag line on a Republican National Committee ad: "Our country is at war. Our soldiers are watching and our enemies are too. Message to Democrats: Retreat and Defeat is not an option." Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert helpfully explained: "The Democratic Party sides with those who wish to surrender."

Attacks on Democrats of this sort are effective because Democrats help make them so. Democrats are so obsessed with not looking "weak" on defense that they end up making themselves look weak, period, by the way they respond to Republican attacks on their alleged weakness. Oh my gosh, many Democrats say, we can't associate ourselves with the likes of Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader who recently called for a troop withdrawal within six months. Let's knife them before Karl Rove gets around to knifing us. Talk about a recipe for retreat and defeat.


But the Democrats' problem is not just one of political tactics. It's also rooted in a simple reality: Democrats in both houses of Congress have been divided on this war from the very beginning. House Democrats are, on the whole, more dovish than Senate Democrats. And the party's rank and file are, on the whole, more dovish than its congressional wing.

There is no magic solution to this problem, and Republicans will continue to exploit it. But if they do nothing else, Democrats have to stop being defensive in the face of Republican attacks. To suggest that the United States might be stronger if it found a way out from under an open-ended commitment in Iraq is neither weak nor unpatriotic. For a party to have differences over how to solve the seemingly intractable problems the Bush policy has created in Iraq is neither surprising nor feckless.

And to question this administration's optimistic claims is simply good sense in light of what has happened in Iraq up to now. After all, it's the administration's wildly optimistic assumptions that led us to fight a war with too few troops, too little planning, and Rodney King-like expectations that the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds would all just get along.

In any event, why shouldn't Democrats be divided on the war? So is the rest of the country. And so are Republicans.

What's gone largely unnoticed is that while Democrats show their divisions on the war in Congress, Republicans are more divided at the grass roots. In the most recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, 76 percent of Democrats favored reducing our commitment to Iraq -- 40 percent for pulling all the troops out, 36 percent for decreasing their numbers -- while 13 percent favored keeping current troop levels, and 6 percent preferred increasing their ranks. Among Republicans, 16 percent favored increasing our troop levels while 37 percent would keep them constant. On the other side, 41 percent supported decreasing our commitment, including the 10 percent who were for full withdrawal.

These are remarkable numbers: 16 percent of Republicans are more hawkish than the president, 41 percent are more dovish. Even in the president's own party, a majority has doubts about our current course.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is .

The real patriots are not those who fall into line behind everything Bush says. They are the Republican and Democratic doubters who have pressured Bush into realizing that he has limited time in Iraq and an imperative to speak more realistically. In his speech on Monday, Bush actually admitted that "things did not always go as planned" in Iraq, and that last January's elections "were not without flaws." From an administration that never admits mistakes, that's progress.


Message to Democrats: buck up. Message to Republican ad makers: Democracy is about improving government through the uninhibited exchange of ideas. And, yes, our soldiers and enemies are watching.

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