Soft Neocons

With Iraq improving, will Neocon ideas return?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

More than seven months ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., claimed that Iraq was “lost.”

But that was hardly the case. In fact, Sunni insurgents were just beginning to turn on al Qaeda and join us.

So now, despite their noisy anti-war base, most leading Democrats quietly are backing away from their talk about bringing American troops in Iraq home on rigid timetables.

Maybe they are learning that quitting Iraq now might be stupid politics since bad news — in fact, all news — from the front is making fewer and fewer headlines.

Democrats know that Republicans will use clips of more “General Betray Us” ads and defeatist assertions next summer when the election campaign heats up and there may be even more progress in Iraq.

Sober Democrats also suspect that their anti-war rhetoric is proving useful in other ways to the Bush administration. Their attacks on the elected al Maliki government in Iraq often make them look like illiberal “bad cops” eager to pull the plug on the error-plagued but nevertheless constitutional government in Iraq just when it seems to be improving.

True, electric production still cannot provide Iraqis 24-hour service — but now the problem is partly because Iraqi consumption has soared above prewar levels. And oil production, while not quite yet at pre-invasion levels, is climbing — now nearly 2.5 million barrels a day, according to Iraq’s oil minister. Plus, Iraq is benefiting from today’s near-$100 per barrel oil prices.

More importantly, civilian casualties are down in Baghdad by 75 percent from June, according to the U.S. military. And Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki recently announced that terrorist attacks in Iraq have decreased by nearly 80 percent from last year.

In other words, for a variety of unforeseen reasons, the furor and partisan bad blood over Iraq are lessening here in the States. The debate over Iraq seems to be changing from “we can’t win” to whether victory is worth the aggregate costs.

Expect this new battle to be more retrospective, as each side tries to inflate or deflate how much blood and treasure have been spent on the Iraq War — and whether the cost has led to greater American security both in and beyond Iraq.

As fear of defeat in Iraq recedes from the political landscape, look to a growing consensus elsewhere. “Neocon” — the term often used to describe “new” conservatives who today support fostering democracy in the Middle East — may still be a dirty word.

But if you take the anger about George Bush out of the equation, along with the Iraq war and the fear of any more invasions by the U.S., why not support democratic reform in the Middle East? We know the alternatives only play into the hands of terrorists.

That’s why presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., recently said that America needed to support democracy and pressure Gen. Pervez Musharraf to restore elections in Pakistan.

Few Democrats or Republicans would disagree with his idealistic rhetoric. Although Obama wouldn’t express the same support for the struggling Iraqi democracy, he sort of sounded like a softer neocon — more worried about the lack of freedom in Pakistan than the fact we might undermine a strongman with nukes and a restive population.

Take also Iran. Both parties worry about an Iran with a nuclear bomb; neither one has sure ideas how to stop it. The Republicans seem to want to talk tough without bombing the mullahs; the Democrats prefer just to talk with them.

Either way, they agree we don’t have much leverage to stop the theocracy other than stabilizing nearby democratic Iraq, encouraging dissidents, imposing sanctions and surrounding Iran with a bloc of worried Arab states.

A year from now, neither George Bush nor a quieter Iraq will inflame Democrats. And without these familiar bogeymen, they will too have to state what they are for, rather than what they are against.

If Democrats keep Congress and win the presidency, they probably won’t do things much differently in Afghanistan. America’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also won’t change much. And if the next president is a Republican, it’s a safe bet he won’t invade any new countries.

As the Democrats move closer to the controversial neoconservative position of actively supporting democratic reform in the Middle East, they will claim that their strong idealistic diplomacy is the proper corrective to the Bush administration’s unilateral misadventures.

The Republicans will counter that with Saddam gone and the Taliban out of power, constitutional governments in their places, and both countries slowly stabilizing, the necessary unpleasant work is mostly done. So using military force to topple terrorist-sponsoring autocrats, at least for now, no longer has to be a ready option.

But either way, both will sound awfully similar — sort of like soft neocons.

©2007 Tribune Media Service

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