In their increasingly shrill attempts to rationalize the Iraq war, President Bush’s defenders persist in thinking that if they choose to demonize a war critic as a white-flag-waving wimp, that most Americans, even at this point in the conflict, will simply accept the characterization as truth. Apparently these defenders somehow believe that it’s still 2002, and that they still hold sway over public opinion, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary.
Consider, for example, the latest episode involving Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. Last Thursday, he said: “I believe myself that the secretary of state, secretary of defense, and – you have to make your own decisions as to what the president knows – that this war is lost, and the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq.”
The Republicans and their allies instantly assumed that they had hit the jackpot: Reid had uttered the phrase “this war is lost,” and thus he could be fitted for cement shoes, destined for eternal demonization as an enemy-emboldening, troop-endangering defeat-o-crat. Everybody got into the act. Texas Senator John Cornyn told CNN that Reid “is playing to the worst elements of the antiwar left.” Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino characterized Reid’s stance as “disturbing.” Conservative House Republican Tom Tancredo dismissed Reid as “reckless.” A colleague, Pete Hoekstra, claimed that Reid was conceding Iraq to al Qaeda. Conservative lawyer-activist Mark Levin wrote that Reid’s remark was “so disgraceful and brazen that it could have been uttered by Tokyo Rose during World War II, or Jane Fonda during the Vietnam war.”
And the attacks continues yesterday; on Fox News. neoconservative war hawk William Kristol said that Reid was “a disgrace,” and Fox political commentator Brit Hume said that Reid’s comment was “laughable.”
What’s particularly ironic about these attacks – and the implication that Reid had marginalized himself as a lefty peacenik at odds with the American mainstream – is that the war apologists have totally misread their man. Harry Reid, far from being a left-leaning ideologue, is actually a cautious politician who hews to the middle of the road; one gets the feeling that most of his moves as majority leader were heavily poll-tested in advance. So when he suggests publicly that “this war is lost,” one can assume that he is merely reflecting mainstream opinion.
And that’s precisely the case.
Three days prior to Reid’s remarks, the latest ABC-Washington Post poll was released. It asked Americans whether we would win or lose the war. Fifty-one percent said we’d lose, 35 percent said we’d win. Last month, meanwhile, the USA Today poll offered four choices, ranging from most optimistic to most pessimistic. The largest share of respondents opted for the latter. Forty-six percent said they didn’t think we can win; another 20 percent said victory was possible, but didn’t think it would happen; 17 percent said we’d probably win; and 10 percent said we’d definitely win.
In other words, it is Reid’s critics – not Reid – who are out of the mainstream. We’re long past the point where they can successfully demonize a Democrat simply by putting him in a tank with Michael Dukakis and parading him around as an object of ridicule.
Indeed, when the critics assailed Reid, they somehow overlooked the fact that his substantive point – about the futility of military victory – has already been voiced by a number of military experts. Retired Gen. Tony McPeak, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War under the senior George Bush, said not long ago that “Even if we had a million men to go in, it’s too late now. Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again.”
And, over the past few days, I don’t recall any of Reid’s critics focusing their ire on conservative icon William F. Buckley, who has long indicated his belief that the war has "failed." Nor have they attacked retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, who directed the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan, wrote in February that it’s futile to keep American troops in Iraq (“fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy”).
But Odom was merely repeating what he said on NBC in 2004. Three years before Reid’s remark, he told the Today Show: “We have already failed. Staying in longer makes us fail worse. If we blindly say we should stick to it, we’re misusing our power and we’re making it worse…I think we’ve passed the chances to not fail.” At the time Odom made those remarks, we had lost roughly 720 soldiers in Iraq.
By the way, Reid added some new remarks today. It's noteworthy that he didn't repeat the "war is lost" phrase (why invite fresh attacks, regardles of how fatuous they might be?); rather he opted for this choice of words: "Winning this war is no longer the job of the American military. Our troops have already done their job...The military mission has long since been accomplished. The failure has been political. It has been policy. It has been presidential."
So here’s my question: Who will the public choose to believe about the war – Harry Reid, or the people who are seeking to equate Reid with Jane Fonda?
And here’s another: Who deserves to be more publicly maligned – the war planners and enablers who have precipitated and perpetuated the disaster, or the politician who merely addresses the reality of the disaster?
And a final one: A number of Republicans have already indicated that if Bush’s troop escalation doesn’t yield “progress” by this autumn, they will bail out on Bush in order to save their skins on the ’08 election. (Congressman Jack Kingston: "A heck of a lot of us will start peeling away.") Will they hew to that promise? Or will they cave again, when the president inevitably pleads with them to sit tight and give him another six months to turn the tide?