The Decider has spoken; the dynamic David and Ryan duo have completed their support roles and are exiting stage right on their way back to Baghdad. The nation should be pleased. “…conditions in Iraq are improving…we are seizing the initiative from the enemy…the troop surge is working.” Victory is both essential and, as exemplified by Anbar province, close at hand. How could that not be the case given the involvement of 36 nation’s troops on the ground? Now there is some news. Silly me, I thought out daughters and sons (with a little help from the fast withdrawing British) were duking it out with “al Qaeda Iraq” (ostensibly the only combatant foe we face) all by themselves. The mission will, after all, be accomplished, albeit by another administration. Perhaps that was the most important message George Bush had for us on Thursday evening. This boiling hot potato will be handed over to his successor, handed over, let’s be clear, in a condition and at a troop level of his choosing. Sure the Congressional defeatists can debate, sure the public can say it wants out, but the Decider will decide. The pundits are saying Bush won this round and in some profound sense they are absolutely right. Bush wins because he is the Decider and, whatever we may think of him, history, he believes, is on his side.
The biggest losers in all this are his beloved fellow Republicans, left hanging out to dry. If the Democrats find themselves unable to muster enough votes to abort the “new strategy” or impede the “way forward”, the Republicans are stuck with Bush’s war. He has made it difficult for them to take off on their own in any meaningful way, even if that is where they want to go, which is by no means apparent. All of the GOP Presidential hopefuls, to one degree or another, support that way forward. Even when they admit to missteps, none of them have strayed far from the reservation. They were for the war at the start and remain so. To be sure, John McCain is out front betting the ranch on his support, but his position is a distinction without a fundamental difference. Rudy 911, Mitt of the sacrificing sons and Big Fred are all right there. John Warner, who seemingly liberated himself by announcing his retirement, will ultimately remain among the good sheep. After all, he asked for a token 5,000-troop reduction by Christmas and he got it. Finding themselves in the most excruciating place are the “moderates” who are up for re-election, the real ones like Susan Collins and the opportunistic (read that desperate) like Norm Coleman. They are at the President’s mercy and most importantly at the mercy of the Sheik’s in Anbar.
If John McCain has bet the ranch on the War, the Administration and its supporters are putting all their eggs on the basket of Anbar. That in itself is a bit of (perhaps transparent) irony. Bush had us invade Iraq to topple a minority Sunni dictatorship that had suppressed the Shiite majority for years. The Iraqis that we were asking to stand up so that we could stand down were largely that oppressed minority. Democracy was the answer and sure enough Shiites “kicked ass” (the President’s expression, not mine) at the polls. But wait a minute. Aren’t the Iranians Shiites? Oh, that’s a problem. So here we are pouring money, weaponry and our hopes into the Sunnis of Anbar. It’s all so confusing, better get Condi and Henry in to straighten things out. No need, we have David, I mean David Petraeus, to tell us what to do. Whatever happens, if Anbar turns sour, we’re screwed, though I’m sure there will be a way of calling that progress as well.
In the end the Democrats will probably emerge victorious from this process, but it won’t be pretty. They too are in a difficult place. Harry and Nancy can talk tough but their options are very limited. With the Republicans locked into a policy they may not like but can’t oppose, the (slim) majority has but one untenable option. It can cut off funds, but it really can’t. Some think that it may be possible to attach strings to funding, but absent Republican support, even that is likely to be but a short term gesture. So far they have also been unable to present a coherent plan of their own, though Barak Obama and John Edwards are taking a stab at it. The fact is that an alternative plan and the need for one is something of a red herring. Plans, even longer-term plans, have to be based on what is when they are put into place and no one knows what will be on January 20, 2009. So it comes down to positioning and that’s a delicate challenge. Interestingly, Hilary Clinton, who has been so effective at portraying herself as a tough leader, may be the most disadvantaged in this game. Her early support for the War was heartfelt and her calls for its end are labored. The fact that she won’t admit having been wrong (though that’s truly Presidential) will continue to haunt her. John Edwards, on the other hand, seems best positioned. He has recanted his support and can now freely oppose with the luxury of not having to vote on a funding cut off, a distinct advantage. What will really be interesting is what Barack Obama does. The debate is the easy part, but will he be willing to take the risk of saying no to funding? In a world where straight talk has even been eliminated from John McCain’s bus, I don’t envy his political choice.
George Bush, knowing his time is running out, is relying on history. For the moment he revels in being the Decider, perhaps even more than being right. I don’t think history will be kind. It really doesn’t matter because, at the moment we’re stuck, and stuck in a very bad place. We may be “mad as hell” but we will have to continue taking it. Our real world won’t stop and we can’t get off.