The Looking-Glass War in Iraq

For the war, then against it, and now for it?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

We can learn a lot about ourselves from the looking glass of Iraq.

American losses in November were 36 dead — the lowest of any November of the war. Once violent places like Fallujah and Ramadi are now quiet. Whatever is happening in Iraq — reasonable people can differ over the prognosis — all agree that the violence is abating at an astonishing rate. 

Oil revenues are at all-time high with $98-a-barrel oil. The Sunni insurgency is not just tired, but tired of losing to the American military and being exploited by al Qaeda in the bargain. Since bad news alone is news from Iraq, there is now very little about the war on our front pages or the evening network lead-ins.

But as House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D., S.C.) presciently warned last July, such good news could present a “problem” for antiwar Democrats. And now it has. 

They invested in the failure of the surge, having successfully tapped into widespread public unhappiness over the absence of prior clear-cut victory. Some change in their position is now on the horizon and it won’t be the first time Democrats have had to adjust en masse.

Most in the party voted in October 2002 to authorize George Bush to remove Saddam Hussein. Why exactly did the present group of antiwar Democrats line up for the war? Was it just legitimate fears of weapons of mass destruction, or the other twenty-some congressional writs they passed as casus belli and haven’t changed a bit?

Perhaps — but they were also still giddy over the unexpected seven-week defeat of the Taliban, and the inspired efforts to fashion an Interim Transitional Administration, with the suave Hamid Karzai as its president. 

Because we had already defeated Saddam in 1991, and since pundits had proclaimed that a secular Iraq would be more malleable to reconstruction than a primordial Afghanistan of warlords, Democrats signed on for another war that might prove even easier to wage and quicker to win. Support for an easy victory in Iraq would only further confirm their reputation of being tough on national security in a post-9/11 world. 

When — in the manner of Sen. Clinton — they warned that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was connected to al Qaeda, they were only reiterating the standard Bill Clinton line throughout much of the 1990s. Indeed, most Democrats saw George Bush’s post-9/11 focus on the dangers of Baathist Iraq as simply the natural escalation from Clinton’s own policy of occasional bombings, embargos, and no-fly zones.

But as the post-Saddam elections lined up — 2004, 2006, 2008 — and the reconstruction of Iraq proved bloodier than anticipated, the politics changed. 

The Democrats became the antiwar party. Prominent pro-war pundits flipped and cursed the effort. Journalistic exposés were published in serial fashion. Michael Moore reigned supreme. And disillusioned former administration officials and generals wrote supposedly brilliant opeds about how the war was lost, and how and why Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz — fill in the blanks — had not listened to their own inspired advice about reconstruction. It was time to pile on. Almost all Democrats did.

Still, there were two caveats here. One, what to do about those embarrassing speeches on October 11 and 12, 2002, given by the likes of Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid? 

The answer? Mostly ignore the past (‘that was then, this is now’). Or claim they were misled by the intelligence. Or at least remove that albatross by insisting that they never really expected a reckless George Bush to take them up on their sober and judicious authorization. 

The second problem was the nature of the growing antiwar mood in the country that after the pullback from Fallujah in April 2004 became frenetic. Democrats rashly fanned this national wildfire. By 2006 the conflagration had finally led to their return to power in Congress. 

Unfortunately, many Democrats saw the change-of-heart in the electorate as a blanket endorsement of their own alternate universe. But it wasn’t necessarily so. The voters were not necessarily interested in new ties with terrorist Syria, restoring diplomacy with Iran, gay marriage, abortion, minority-identity politics, new spending programs, open borders, closing down Guantanamo, an end to wiretaps of suspected terrorists, or the repeal of the Patriot Act. 

The people were mad at the war not because they felt it was amoral or unsound policy, or that they hated George Bush, or that they wished liberals instead to end it in defeat — but simply because they felt frustrated that we either were not winning, or not winning at a cost in blood and treasure that was worth the effort. 

That Pattonesque national mood (“America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser”) is not quite entirely gone, and was entirely misunderstood by most Democrats. Somehow instead they saw their new popularity as connected to the appeal of their politics rather than their shared anger at the mismanagement of the war.

So in their exultation, they welcomed in extremists and fringe groups — as if the worldview of a Michael Moore,, or Daily Kos might further resonate with the American people. The result was a Harry Reid now declaring the war lost and Gen. Petraeus disingenuous; a Hillary Clinton all but suggesting Gen. Petraeus — soon to be the most popular American general since Dwight D. Eisenhower — was untruthful (“suspension of belief”); and ads alleging that Petraeus was a near traitor. 

Despite the self-destructive nature of such extremism, the frenzy at least kept up fixation on the war — and not on the Democrats’ own political agenda. After all, this November voters were supposed to hear of Congressional timetables, forced withdrawals, and a cut-off of funds — not presidential candidates backing away from just those erstwhile demands to ponder driver’s licenses for illegal aliens.

As always happens in war, the pulse of the battlefield had changed again. By September 2007 things suddenly had become as good as they had suddenly gone bad in early 2006 with the destruction of the mosque in Samara. Yet, if the public — once angry over the bad news from Iraq — had forgiven the Democrats their initial flip-flops and forgotten those 2002 war speeches, they may well not be so kind this third time around. Voters will blame those who don’t bring them victory, but they will not support those who will defeat.

On the eve of this war about twenty percent had strong feelings to begin the fighting, while twenty percent opposed it — and the vast majority in between had no strong views other than a desire to be on the winning side. Although the Democrats grasped that truth about human nature, and thus all during the last four years adjusted their politics to mirror what they perceived 51 percent of the people believed, they forgot one central truth — evident in the careers of all great statesmen from Pericles to Churchill. 

While the people are expected to be fickle, they are uneasy when their own leaders prove even more so. A voter has no problem changing his position to reflect the apparent popular consensus, or even seeing a wishy-washy politician reflect his own displeasure about perceived defeat. But when the scent of victory is in the air, suddenly the citizen gives little leeway for a politician to be as opportunistic as himself.

When the perception of Iraq changed unexpectedly from an unpopular quagmire to a brilliant recovery, replete with real heroes, the Democrats, like deer in the headlights, were caught frozen. After all, who wants to see next October attack-ad clips of an Iraqi politician praising the United States, or a quiet walk through smiling crowds in Ramadi juxtaposed with Senators declaring our defeat and slurring the savior of Iraq? 

So what to do?

At first, silence followed for much of the autumn. No more pronouncements of defeat from Harry Reid; no more ads alleging treason; no more John Murthas thundering about war criminals in our ranks; no more orations from Sen. Durbin about our troops being Nazi-like; no more quips from Sen. Kennedy that we were the new Baathists at Abu Ghraib. 

But where does all this leave us since one cannot remain entirely mum about one of the most transformative events in recent American history? If Iraq stays quiet, then the Democrats will have to make yet a third adjustment, either suggesting that a victory is still not worth the cost in blood and treasure (e.g., ‘how many children went uninsured while we wasted a trillion dollars?’), or that they are due credit for the turn-around (e.g., ‘our pressure got the necessary changes from the administration’). Ignoring or denying the good news is simply not a sustainable strategy.

It gets worse, since the Democrats are not quite sure of the permanence of the upswing from Iraq. Why make that third flip just yet, and give up a Watergate- or Iran-Contra-like gift, especially when a sudden spike in violence might start the entire ying and yang all over again? And if you abandon the idea that the war is lost, and that Iraq is the worst something in the history of the United States, does the attention then by default turn back again to Democratic ideology and politics — and if so, is that necessarily good news?

We are a long way from a Sen. Joe Lieberman of liberal Connecticut who voted for the war, stuck through it, and is pleased that his country has finally stabilized the country. We are a long way too from principled critics like a Rep. Brian Baird of even more liberal Washington, who was skeptical of the war when most were not, voted against it when most did not, but once the surge was implemented, supported the American effort to win the war when most of his colleagues did not.

Once you live by the daily polls, and mortgage lasting principle to transient popularity, then you become enslaved by them as well. So all eyes once again turn to the looking glass of Iraq. 

The drama is not whether the Democrats once again will make the necessary political adjustments here at home just in time for an election — but whether it will work yet a third time.

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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