WASHINGTON -- Two pivotal, but underreported, developments are being overlooked in the escalating political battle over the war in Iraq.
First, no matter how disenchanted Americans have become about the war to establish a strong, stable pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East's terrorist breeding ground, a majority is still opposed to our pulling out before we have achieved that mission.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 52 percent want the United States to keep our troops in Iraq until Iraqis' security forces can maintain civil order. That hasn't changed. Despite a fierce Democratic offensive in Congress for the withdrawal of U.S. military forces next year, if not sooner, the poll found only about 1-in-5 believe the United States should get out right away.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert knew that when, in the face of a furious Democratic assault on the war issue, he decided to give the Democrats an up-or-down vote on an immediate pullout. That's essentially what John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, proposed Thursday.
In fact, there was no real consensus in Murtha's party about yanking U.S. troops out in the midst of Iraq's most perilous hour, and Hastert knew that, too.
After a similarly well-coordinated offensive in the Senate, followed by the usually hawkish Murtha's surprise pullout suggestion, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate leader Harry Reid and party chairman Howard Dean were milking the issue for all the political mileage they could get out of it. Republicans had to call their bluff, which Hastert did, scheduling a quick vote late Friday night.
"The Democrats want to play politics, so let's play politics with it. See if their votes are where their mouths are," barked Carl Forti, spokesman for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
The measure, predictably, was crushed 403-3. The Democrats were all talk and no convictions.
Second, no one is talking about the widening rift in Democratic ranks between the hard left antiwar wing and many of its congressional leaders. While Democrats may look like they are united against the war, they seem all over the lot, especially in their leadership ranks.
When a group of Senate Democratic war critics last week proposed an amendment suggesting a timetable for troop withdrawal, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, rushed to the floor to denounce the move. "The debate in our country and in this city has grown much too partisan over what is happening in Iraq," Lieberman lectured Democrats. "And that partisanship has begun to get in the way of our successful completion of our mission there."
Yes, the debate over the credibility of pre-war intelligence nearly three years ago was important, "but not as important as about how we successfully complete our mission in Iraq, how we protect the men and women fighting for us in uniform over there, how we do what the majority of members of both parties has said is so important to us, successfully complete this mission," he said.
Lieberman fears the pacifist message Democrats are sending, "and that is a message that I feel will discourage our troops in the field, will encourage the terrorists and confuse the Iraqis."
Lieberman wasn't the only Democrat rejecting the antiwar, pullout wing of his party. While Murtha's call for withdrawal drew fulsome praise from Pelosi and the party's left, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, reacted with sullen silence. Pulling the rug out from under the Iraqis in this struggle against the terrorists was not the tough-minded national security agenda that Hoyer's party desperately needs to stake out in next year's elections.
Increasingly, Democrats' peace wing is shaping the party's national security agenda, and they are going after anyone who does not toe the antiwar line.
Even Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton is under attack for supporting the war and not embracing the full withdrawal plan being pushed by liberal Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold (who is emerging the hero of the antiwar crowd and a 2008 presidential contender).
In an open letter on leftist filmmaker Michael Moore's Web site, antiwar crusader Cindy Sheehan attacked Clinton's support for the war, vowing to "resist your candidacy with every bit of my power and strength."
"I think she is a political animal who believes she has to be war hawk to keep up with the big boys," Sheehan said. What particularly enraged Sheehan and her antiwar supporters was what Clinton told the Village Voice: "My bottom line is that I don't want their sons to die in vain ... I don't believe it's smart to set a date for withdrawal. I don't think it's the right time to withdraw."
This is a party that is badly divided over the paramount national security issue of our time, and that's not going to help their credibility in 2006 and beyond.