Friday, August 18, 2006

Remember "freedom is on the march?" How's that working out these days?

So there I was yesterday, trolling through a New York Times story about the current state of play in President Bush's Iraq democracy project, and after I had digested all the latest statistics about the expanding sectarian violence, the record-high number of roadside bomb attacks on U.S. soldiers, the soaring number of U.S. injuries, and the growing pessimism of defense intelligence officials -- after all that, I reached the most important info, down around the 20th paragraph. Here's how the article closed:

Yet some outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq’s democratically elected government might not survive.

"Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy," said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. "Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect...but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy."

Naturally, the White House moved late yesterday to knock down that little news nugget, telling conservative commentator Rich Lowry that no such consideration of alternatives is being contemplated, and Lowry spread the word on the National Review website. But I think the Times item signals a lot of unrest and concern within the Bush administration about their chosen war; even the official White House line is that we still face "huge challenges" in Iraq. And the willingness of a White House briefee to leak this to the administration's number one enemy news outlet is also a signal that not everyone who deals with the White House feels obligated anymore to echo the company line on Iraq. Particularly when factual reality conflicts with that company line.

It's also impossible to imagine that the White House would officially confirm its strong concern for the viability of its Iraq democracy project on the eve of an election season. That would hardly buoy Bush's ratings, since only three weeks ago he was still voicing his dream of a "free and democratic Iraq." Nor would it help the imperiled Republican congressional candidates (particularly in Northeast swing districts) who are already burdened by the war. And an admission that the democracy project is in deep trouble would also put the squeeze on Bush's favorite independent/Democratic hawk, Joe Lieberman, who is trying to hang onto his Connecticut Senate job with Bush's virtual blessing; it was Lieberman, after all, who wrote last December that "the Iraqi people are in reach of a watershed modern, self-governing, self-securing nationhood."

On the other hand, even if the White House was to openly acknowledge that it is exploring "alternatives other than democracy," would that be such a big deal? After all, back when Bush was trying to sell the idea of invading Iraq, he didn't say it was part of any grand vision to build a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. The main rationale for war was not Woodrow Wilson idealism; it was the (now discredited) argument that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed because he was poised to strike America with WMDs. As Rich Lowry himself told me in a conversation we had several years ago, a democracy project would have been too tough a sell. No, Bush didn't start to stress the neoconservative dream about a democratic Iraq until his postwar woes began to pile up, when the search for WMDs came up empty -- and when it was clear that he would have to frame a new rationale.

Which means that, yes, an admission that the Maliki government might fail, that the democracy project itself might fail, would indeed compound Bush's political problems at home. And worse yet, such an admission might not be necessary. The new violence statistics, the news reports of spreading civil war tensions, and the impending release this autumn of a military study that will pinpoint U.S. failures in Iraq ("the results won't be pretty," one author says) -- all of these will enable '06 voters ( particularly the much-wooed "security moms") to draw their own conclusions, regardless of what the White House chooses to say.

And that seems to be happening already. As Republican pollster/strategist David Winston told the Washington Post today, married women in particular seem more concerned about Iraq than about the general terror threat. He said that, while many still support the mission, "they are increasingly unwilling to sustain the sort of sacrifices that we have to make over there."