Friday, September 29, 2006

Will the Iraq "firestorm" consume the Republicans?

I scribbled intensely, as torrents of Defeatocrat pessimism fell into my notebook.

This happened last night in Philadelphia, at a forum on national security sponsored by the World Affairs Council. A speaker on stage was saying all kinds of dire downbeat stuff about Iraq, openly contradicting the sunnier talking points uttered during campaign ’06 by the President of the United States. For instance, on the topic of ever-spiraling violence in Iraq:

“I think we’re about to witness the great Shiite revenge…We’ve got a real firestorm brewing (thanks to) the hell that’s going to be unleashed as the Shiites start to eat the Sunnis…(The Bush administration’s) huge mistake was to underestimate the Sunnis’ willpower (to launch an insurgency)” -- and that insurgency in turn has triggered the Shiite revenge.

Well, that clinched it for me: There is now a rough national consensus that conditions in Iraq war are far worse than the White House chooses to admit. The source of those remarks was not a Democrat, or some liberal gloom-and-doomer who might be ripe for caricature in the GOP message shop; the speaker was Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA specialist on the Middle East and Bush supporter who worked at the Project for a New American Century, one of the neoconservative think tanks that pioneered the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein.

In political terms, how can the Republicans expect to retain control of Congress in the ’06 elections when there seems to be no way to spin Iraq as an upbeat GOP achievement? And when even the 16 spy agencies that work for Bush have authored an intelligence report that flatly disputes Bush’s declaration, in a speech three weeks ago, that “we’re on the offense against terrorists on every battlefront”?

Indeed, Gerecht’s words were further confirmation that the partially-leaked National Intelligence Estimate was really not telling us much of anything that we didn’t already know. Gerecht knows that Iraq is a firestorm (as opposed to the predicted “cakewalk”) in the heart of the Middle East. A majority of the American people know that the Iraq war has made us less safe, having already expressed this sentiment in countless ’06 polls. And officials from the nation’s foreign-policy establishment - of all ideological persuasions - know that the war has been a disaster, having already voiced that opinion this summer with Foreign Policy magazine.

One of the people who helped produce that magazine’s “Terrorism Index” survey was Joe Cirincione, a national security expert, former congressional staffer, former director for nonproliferation issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and now a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress (a Democratic think tank). He too spoke at the World Affairs Council event, and shared the survey statistics: Of the 100 top foreign-policy people, 86 percent say the world is more dangerous for Americans today than it was five years ago; 87 percent said that the war in Iraq has negatively affected our ability to fight global terrorism; 84 percent disagreed with Bush’s core claim that we’re winning the war on terror.

Most significant was the sentiment among the conservative experts: 81 percent said the world is more dangerous today for Americans; 61 percent said that Iraq has hurt our efforts; and 71 percent disagreed with Bush’s core claim.

“I don’t think we understood what we were reaping when we went into Iraq,” Cirincione said. “Just as the British didn’t (when they occupied Iraq in 1919). We are going to reap the whirlwind, and the administration doesn’t have a plan to deal with it.”

Bush tried yesterday to recoup, by again seeking to paint the Democrats as “the party of cut and run,” but his problem is that a plurality of likely ’06 voters now regard the withdrawal of troops as an attractive option. Here’s a new poll: by 46 percent to 36 percent, voters prefer a congressional candidate who wants us to get out of Iraq, over a candidate who wants us to stay. And the percentage spread is even more pronounced among independent swing voters, 50 to 25. The sponsor of this poll? Fox News.

And next week could be even worse for the president. Bob Woodward’s new book about Bush and Iraq (State of Denial, which says it all) gets the big publicity rollout on Sunday in The Washington Post and on 60 Minutes. One story today, citing the book, reports that Bush, eight months into the war, was still refusing to accept the reality of an anti-American insurgency; and that when weapons inspector David Kay tried to warn the White House, during the first summer of the war, that there were no WMDs, he was reportedly told, “Don’t tell anyone this. This could be upsetting.”

The new material from Woodward – who, until now, was often dismissed by Bush critics as an administration lackey – will play out for many days. So will the growing dispute over whether a new NIE, dealing only with Iraq, which has been in the works since the beginning of August, should be released before the election, or, as the administration prefers, should be released next January. All these furors will spark fresh questions, in the heat of an election season, over whether voters should entrust the Iraq cleanup to the same party that made the mess. Indeed, even now, some of the GOP incumbents don’t seem sufficiently enlightened. As evidence, I give you Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, speaking yesterday:

“Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”