ELECTIONS may come and go, but Washington remains incorrigible. Not even voters delivering a clear message can topple the town’s conventional wisdom once it has been set in the stone of punditry.
Right now the capital is entranced by a fictional story line about the Democrats. As this narrative goes, the party’s sweep of Congress was more or less an accident. The victory had little to do with the Democrats’ actual beliefs and was instead solely the result of President Bush’s unpopularity and a cunning backroom stunt by the campaign Machiavellis, Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel, to enlist a smattering of “conservative” candidates to run in red states. In this retelling of the 2006 election, the signature race took place in Montana, where the victor was a gun-toting farmer with a flattop haircut: i.e., a Democrat in Republican drag. And now the party is deeply divided as its old liberals and new conservatives converge on Capitol Hill to slug it out.
The only problem with this version of events is that it’s not true. The overwhelming majority of the Democratic winners, including Jon Tester of Montana, are to the left of most Republicans, whether on economic policy or abortion. For all of the hyperventilation devoted to the Steny Hoyer-John Murtha bout for the House leadership, the final count was lopsided next to the one-vote margin in the G.O.P. Senate intramural that yielded that paragon of “unity,” Trent Lott. But the most telling barometer is the election’s defining issue: there is far more unanimity among Democrats about Iraq than there is among Republicans. Disengaging America from that war is what the country voted for overwhelmingly on Nov. 7, and that’s what the Democrats almost uniformly promised to speed up, whatever their vague, often inchoate notions about how to do it.
Even before they officially take over, the Democrats are trying to deliver on this pledge. Carl Levin and Joe Biden, among the party’s leaders in thinking through a new Iraq policy, are gravitating toward a long-gestating centrist exit strategy: a phased withdrawal starting in four to six months; a loosely federal Iraqi government that would ratify the de facto separation of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and fairly allocate the oil spoils; and diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy to engage Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in securing some kind of peace.
None of these ideas are radical, novel or much removed from what James Baker’s Iraq Study Group is expected to come up with. All are debatable and all could fail. At this late date, only triage is an option, not “victory.” There’s no panacea to end the civil war that four years of American bumbling have wrought. But the one truly serious story to come out of the election — far more significant than the Washington chatter about “divided Democrats” — is that the president has no intention of changing his policy on Iraq or anything else one iota.
Already we are seeing conclusive evidence that the White House’s post-thumpin’ blather about bipartisanship is worth as little as the “uniter, not a divider” bunk of the past. The tip-off came last week when Mr. Bush renominated a roster of choices for the federal appeals court that he knew faced certain rejection by Democrats. Why? To deliver a message to the entire Senate consonant with the unprintable greeting Dick Cheney once bestowed on Patrick Leahy, the senator from Vermont. That message was seconded by Tony Snow on Monday when David Gregory of NBC News asked him for a response to the Democrats’ Iraq proposals. The press secretary belittled them as “nonspecific” and then tried to deflect the matter entirely by snickering at Mr. Gregory’s follow-up questions.
Don Imus has been rerunning the video ever since, and with good reason. The laughing-while-Baghdad-burns intransigence of the White House makes your blood run cold. The day after Mr. Snow ridiculed alternative policies for Iraq, six American soldiers were killed. It was on that day as well that militia assailants stormed the education ministry in Baghdad in broad daylight, effortlessly carrying out a mass abduction of as many as 150 government officials in some 15 minutes. Given that those kidnappers were probably in cahoots with a faction of the very government they were terrorizing, it would be hard to come up with a more alarming snapshot of those “conditions on the ground” the president keeps talking about: utter chaos, with American troops in the middle, risking their lives to defend which faction, exactly?
Yet here was what Mr. Snow had to say about the war in this same press briefing: “We are winning, but on the other hand, we have not won” and “Our commitment is to get to the point where we achieve victory.” If that’s the specificity the White House offers to counter the Democrats’ “nonspecific” ideas about Iraq, bring back Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr. Snow’s performance was echoed by the more sober but equally nonsensical testimony of Gen. John Abizaid, our chief commander in the Middle East, before the Senate Armed Services Committee less than 48 hours later. It was déjà stay-the-course all over again. The general is not for withdrawing American troops or, as John McCain would prefer, adding them. (General Abizaid delicately pointed out to Mr. McCain that a sustainable supply of new American troops is in any case “simply not something that we have right now”; the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, doesn’t want them even if we did.) The general’s hope instead is for more Iraqi troops, even though, as he conceded, we still don’t have any such forces operating “completely independently” of their embedded American advisers. In other words: We are still, so many sacrifices later, waiting for the Iraqis to stand up so we can stand down.
An even more telling admission was to follow. “General Abizaid,” Jack Reed of Rhode Island asked, “how much time do you think we have to bring down the level of violence in Baghdad before we reach some type of tipping point where it accelerates beyond the control of even the Iraqi government?” After some hemming and hawing came a specific answer: “Four to six months.” Thus did our commander in Iraq provide the perfect exit ramp into the Democrats’ exit strategy, whether intentionally or not: the Iraqis must stand up by exactly the same deadline that Mr. Levin proposed for the start of a phased withdrawal.
Everyone outside of the Bush bunker knows that’s where we’re heading. As the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told Keith Olbermann last week, “The American people have walked away from the war.” The general predicted, as many in Washington have, that the Baker commission, serving as a surrogate Papa Bush, would give the White House the “intellectual orchestration” to label the withdrawal “getting out with honor.” But might this Beltway story line, too, be wrong? Everything in the president’s behavior since the election, including his remarkably naïve pronouncements in Vietnam, suggests that he will refuse to catch the political lifeline that Mr. Baker might toss him. Mr. Bush seems more likely instead to use American blood and money to double down on his quixotic notion of “victory” to the end. Not for nothing has he been communing with Henry Kissinger.
So what then? A Democratic Congress can kill judicial appointments but cannot mandate foreign policy. The only veto it can exercise is to cut off the war’s funding, political suicide that the Congressional leadership has rightly ruled out. The plain reality is that the victorious Democrats, united in opposition to the war and uniting around a program for quitting it, have done pretty much all they can do. Republican leaders must join in to seal the deal.
Don’t count Mr. McCain among them. His call for more troops even when there are no more troops is about presidential politics, a dodge that allows him to argue in perpetuity that we never would have lost Iraq if only he had been heeded from the start. True or not, that gets America nowhere now. Look instead to two other Republican military veterans in the Senate, one who is not running for president and one who yet might. The first is John Warner, who said a month before the election that he would seek an overhaul of Iraq policy in 60 to 90 days if there was no progress. The second is Chuck Hagel, who has been prescient about the war’s potential pitfalls since 2002 and started floating exit strategies parallel to the Levin-Biden track last summer.
There’s an incentive for other Republicans to join them in advancing the endgame. Even if the Democrats self-destructively descend into their own Abramoff-style scandals — Mr. Murtha referred to House ethics reforms as “total crap” — that may not be enough to save the Republicans if they’re still staring down the bloody barrel of their Iraq fiasco in 2008.
But most of all, disengagement from Iraq is the patriotic thing to do. Diverting as “divided Democrats” has been, it’s escapist entertainment. The Washington story that will matter most going forward is the fate of the divided Republicans. Only if they heroically come together can the country be saved from a president who, for all his professed pipe dreams about democracy in the Middle East, refuses to surrender to democracy’s verdict at home.