Iraq is just not a quagmire for the troops. It's also a quagmire for the '08 Republican presidential candidates.
This was readily apparent last night, during the latest GOP debate, sponsored this time by Fox News. Any undecided independent voter who tuned in hoping to hear some fresh ideas probably surfed away in total frustration. With the exception of the unelectable antiwar candidate Ron Paul, the white guys on stage (minus Fred Thompson, who opted to yuk it up on Jay Leno) seemed cognitively incapable of straying from the familiar George W. Bush template.
That's a savvy strategy as far as it goes, since, according to the latest CBS News poll, 62 percent of Republicans support Bush's handling of the war - and the GOP base is crucial to winning the nomination. The problem is that, in terms of the '08 general election, marching in lockstep with Bush is political suicide; as evidenced in the CBS poll, only 21 percent of independent voters still back Bush on the war.
Mitt Romney embodied the GOP dilemma last night. When asked to explain his current stance on the war, and the possibility of a U.S. troop drawdown, he said this:
"...(T)he surge is apparently working. We're going to get a full report on that from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker very soon. But the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Brookings have come back with positive reports. If the surge is working, then we're going to be able to start bringing back our troops levels slowly but surely, and play more of a support role over time. Ultimately, down the road, I would anticipate that we're not going to have a permanent presence in Iraq, and we'll be in a standby mode in surrounding nations. But, of course, when we consider moving to a support role and bringing, at some stage, our troop levels back, we're going to be doing that from a position of strength because the surge has worked."
That sure sounded familiar. In fact, we heard all that on Monday, from Bush himself. During his photo-op in Iraq, Bush suggested that a working surge might lead to eventual and unspecified troop withdrawals, but that first we must hear from Petraeus and Crocker, and, besides, on the drawdown issue, he doesn't have any time frame in mind. Now we have Romney suggesting that a working surge might lead to eventual troop withdrawals, but first we must hear from Petraeus and Crocker, and, besides, on the drawdown issue, "I don't have a time frame that I've announced."
Not surprisingly, a citizen questioner, whose son is serving in Iraq, complained shortly thereafter that he was dissatisfied with Romney's response, on the grounds that Romney had been vague on how he would end the war. (No wonder Romney was vague. He was echoing Bush.) The questioner, a deputy sheriff, said: "I didn't hear how you would end it. I didn't hear an end game plan from you, and I would like a response on that."
Whereupon Romney ignored the thrust of the question, and instead offered more rhetoric from the Bush playbook, basically about how "this battlefield of Iraq is a place where we have to be successful because the consequences of what will happen on this global battlefield are enormous."
Indeed, Romney was so locked into Bush mode that he even exhibited one of Bush's most enduring traits: the ability to utter statements that are contradicted by factual reality. Scroll back to that first quote, and note his remark about how the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently came back with a "positive" report about how the surge is going. That is not accurate.
Anthony Cordesman, the leading Iraq expert at the CSIS think tank, recently came back from his Iraq visit and authored a nuanced report that is laced with skepticism. Cordesman writes that some of the anti-American violence has ceased not because of the troop surge, but because Sunni fighters, out of self-interest, have chosen to cut deals to work with the Americans; indeed, "the same fighters who were killing Americans could be killing them again in a matter of weeks or months...(W)hile the surge strategy has had value in some areas, much of this progress was not the function of the surge strategy, U.S. planning, or the actions of the Maliki government. In fact, the 'new' strategy President Bush announced in January 2007 has failed in many aspects of its original plan."
All told, despite Romney's sunny that the CSIS report was "positive," Cordesman wrote this: "The political and economic dimensions of the surge strategy have also failed to materialize at anything like the rate planned in Washington...Iraq has not made anything like the political progress required, and the effort to expand and revitalize the U.S. aid effort to help the Iraqi central government improve its dismal standards of governance and economic recovery efforts have already slipped some six months, and are far too dependent on the U.S. military." (And this report was written nearly one month before the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded that the Iraqis have flunked the benchmark test, surge notwithstanding.)
And yet, despite all of Romney's lockstep Bush rhetoric, and his sunny Bush-style defiance of fact, that still wasn't good enough for some of his GOP rivals last night. John McCain, in particular, took umbrage that Romney had not been sufficiently sunny. Exhibiting the behavior that has made him a joke among the independent voters who once revered him, McCain took issue with one crucial word in the Romney rap on Iraq.
In Romney's initial remarks, he had said that "the surge is apparently working." Well, McCain bridled at the italicized word, and demanded that Romney expunge all traces of skepticism from his mind. McCain lectured Romney: "Governor, the surge is working. The surge is working, sir. It is working. No, not 'apparently.' It's working...It's working, and we have to rally the American people."
Rudy Giuliani also marched in lockstep, echoing the Bush argument that we can't allow Iraq to become a "headquarters for Islamic terrorism" - which is reasonable as far as it goes, as long as one ignores the historical context, which is that Bush, by invading Iraq, converted the country into a headquarters for Islamic terrorism.
On occasion, a few candidates did try to tiptoe away, ever so tentatively, from the line of march. Sam Brownback actually dared to say that "we don't have a political solution of the ground that works in Iraq...we need to recognize that reality," but few Republicans consider him a viable candidate at this point - especially in crucial New Hampshire (site of this debate), where his religious conservatism is out of step with the voters.
But the award for creative tiptoeing surely went to Mike Huckabee, who is currently enjoying his post-Iowa straw poll boomlet, and who offered this rationale for staying the course in Iraq:
"We have to continue the surge, and let me explain why, Chris. When I was a little kid, if I went into a store with my mother, she had a simple rule for me: If I picked something off the shelf at the store and I broke it, I bought it. I learned I don't pick something off the shelf I can't afford to buy. Well, what we did in Iraq, we essentially broke it. It's our responsibility to do the best we can to try to fix it before we just turn away. Because something is a stake....whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion the historians can have, but we're there.
We bought it because we broke it."
Where have I heard that one before...Oh yes. That's what Colin Powell reportedly said to Bush, when the first-term Secretary of State tried to warn the president about the potential downside of invading Iraq: "You break it, you own it."
Which means that Huckabee was being quite daring, in a way. Last night he was essentially arguing that we should stay the course with the surge not because it is working, but because we have screwed things up so badly in Iraq that we have no choice except to make amends by persevering.
And that's basically what passes for dissent these days within the Republican presidential field.
As best I can determine, here's the most up-to-date Larry Craig chronology:
He was against resignation (last week) before he was for it (last Saturday). But then he was against it again (Tuesday) after he was for it (last Saturday). And now he is apparently for resignation yet again (today), after having been against it (Tuesday) and for it (last Saturday) and against it (last week).
And Ted Stevens, the ethically-challened Republican senator whose house has been raided by the FBI, is probably thinking, "Keep owning that news cycle, Larry."