Wednesday, February 14, 2007

GOP admits: if we try to defend our Surge, "we lose"

I mentioned here yesterday, with regards to the House debate on Iraq, that Republicans are in the tough position of defending President Bush’s troop escalation plan, because they have to pretend that they really believe in it. I wrote that their attitude this week will be more dutiful than diehard. Indeed, their discomfort was palpable during the initial hours of debate, yesterday afternoon.

I was struck by the fact that most of them barely mentioned the troop hike at all, or even the Iraq situation in general; rather, most spoke in broad terms about the global terrorist threat, apparently in the hopes of implying that vigilant Republicans recognize the lethality of those who plot against us, while feckless Democrats do not.

Well, now we know why the Republicans have decided to go global: Because they themselves recognize that any attempt to actually defend the troop hike, or to generally defend Bush’s war, is a stone cold loser.

This is what they say. A House Republican memo, outlining talking points for the debate, has surfaced online (somebody first leaked it to Democratic deputy leader Steny Hoyer) . Here’s the key passage:

"Democrats want to force us to focus on defending the surge….The debate should not be about the surge or its details. This debate should not even be about the Iraq war to date, mistakes that have been made, or whether we can, or cannot, win militarily. If we let Democrats force us into a debate on the surge or the current situation in Iraq, we lose.”

That certainly concedes a lot of ground. One would think that a debate over Iraq should focus on what has happened in the war to date, and the mistakes that have been made – such as invading without a postwar plan, disbanding the Iraqi army without any thought to where the soldiers might go, failing to anticipate a Sunni insurgency, and dozens of others. One would also think that a House debate over a resolution condemning the Surge should focus on the current situation in Iraq – since, after all, an assessment of the current situation might actually provide some insights into whether the Surge would work at all. One would think that Republicans might feel an obligation, during a House debate, to defend and explain the Surge to the thousands of American families that are sending Surgers into the fray.

But, as the Republicans acknowledge in their own memo, it is futile to engage on any of those issues. Having concluded that it’s a fool’s errand to defend Bush’s war on the merits, they have decided on the sole remaining option: Change the subject and try, once again, to paint the Democrats as soft on global terrorism.

Why they would expect this strategy to work – given the results of the ’06 elections, and given the fact that most Americans concluded some time ago that the war in Iraq is actually a wasteful distraction from the global battle against terrorism – is anybody’s guess. But, as the memo makes clear, the Bush foot soldiers at this point don’t have the requisite body armor to withstand Democratic attack and engage on the facts.

Perhaps they were hoping today that Bush would bail them out with some fresh talking points; the president had the opportunity to do so, during a late-morning press conference. But, alas, he was no help. In fact, he managed to pour sand into the House GOP's limited weaponry.

Rather than joust with the Democrats over the merits of the troop hike, and the substance of the Bush war policy, the House Republicans have sought to limit their specific Iraq remarks to two arguments: Any resolution expressing disapproval of the troop hike will give aid and comfort to the terrorists, and any such resolution is tantamount to dissing the troops.

House GOP leader John Boehner, for instance, has already said that, by passing the resolution, "we're going to embolden the enemies." Surely the president agrees with that, right?

Wrong. Bush said at his press conference today, "Whether this particular resolution will impact enemy thought, I can't tell you that."

OK, what about the argument that the anti-Surge resolution is akin to dissing the troops? As GOP congressman David Dreier said during the debate, "You cannot claim to support our troops without supporting their mission." Surely the president at least agrees with that, right?

Wrong again. At his press conference, Bush was asked whether those who are speaking out against his troop hike are, by definition, undermining the troops. Here's his response: "I don't think so at all. You can be against my decision and still support the troops, absolutely."

So that doesn't leave his Capitol Hill allies much to work with. But the thing is, Bush knows that talking points don't mean squat at this stage of the war. He said so himself, near the end of the press conference: "What really matters is what happens on the ground (in Iraq). I can talk all day long, but what really matters to the American people is to see progress."

Neither side in the week-long House debate would disagree with that.