Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The sense of impending political doom that clutches Republican hearts, one week after President George W. Bush presented to the nation his new strategy on Iraq, is stoked by the alarming intelligence brought back from Baghdad by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and passed around Capitol Hill.

In a pre-Christmas visit to Iraq, Coleman and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida met with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi government's national security adviser. Coleman described their astounding encounter in a Dec. 19 blog: "Dr. Rubaie maintains that the major challenge facing Iraq is not a sectarian conflict but rather al Qaeda and disgruntled Baathists seeking to regain power. Both Sen. Nelson and I react with incredulity to that assessment. Rubaie cautions against more troops in Baghdad."

Rubaie denied the overriding reality of sectarian violence in Baghdad because his government is tied to the Shiite belligerents in that conflict. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gives Bush lip service about cracking down on Mahdi Army commander Moqtada al-Sadr, U.S. officials recognize Maliki's political support depends on the Shiite militia leader. Thus, Maliki's government is in denial about sectarian conflict. Maliki did not show up for a press conference in which he was scheduled to comment on Bush's new strategy, and he personally remains silent at this writing.

This hastens the desire of Republicans, who once cheered the Bush Doctrine in the Middle East, to remove U.S. forces from a politically deteriorating condition as soon as possible. "Iraq is a black hole for the Republican Party," a prominent party strategist told me this week. What makes his comments so important is that he is not a maverick Republican in Congress but one of Bush's principal political advisers.

As they adjust to the 2006 election returns, Republicans recognize that this was no isolated bump in the road. The loss of 323 state legislative seats across the country to the Democrats classifies last year's election as a midrange electoral disaster.

The internal Republican debate concerns how much Iraq contributed to this outcome. The White House and Republican members of Congress who voted for intervention in Iraq contend many issues led to their defeat: incompetent management of the Hurricane Katrina crisis, widespread cases of corruption and abandonment of spending restraint. But at the grass roots, Republicans tell me that Iraq was the central problem and must be erased.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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