Politics and polls win over principle

Posted: Nov 18, 2005 9:05 AM

You have to wonder - about a second or two - what Senate Republicans would be saying if polls showed that most Americans overwhelmingly support the war in Iraq.

Would they be scrambling toward the defeatist, anti-war side of the political aisle, as they did Tuesday by passing a resolution that suggests a weakening of resolve? Not likely.

Instead, they'd be elbowing each other for talking-head time to reiterate all the reasons they supported the war in the first place. They'd be explaining the importance of hanging tough until Iraqis can secure their own country and continue their path toward democratic self-rule.

Some, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, did make the latter point. But implicit in the resolution calling for a strategic exit plan and regular progress reports by the White House is acceptance of poll results indicating that most Americans are ready to cut bait.

The latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today survey found that 63 percent of Americans disapprove of present circumstances in Iraq. Of course staying in Iraq is on no sane person's wish list, but abandoning the Iraqi people at this juncture - whether literally or symbolically - is not a sane alternative.

As the war slogs on toward its fourth year, as the American death count mounts amid a persistent insurgency, and as Americans hear daily charges of government incompetence leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, popular support inevitably wanes.

No one wants to be "pro" something that isn't going well. Witness daily soliloquies from politicians seeking either to affix blame elsewhere ("We were misled" and "Bush lied" are flavors of the day), or seeking absolution through confession.

"I was wrong," said John Edwards in his first official statement of the 2008 presidential race.

Criticism about postwar planning - or the absence of it - is surely justified. And Bush should have been delivering war reports to the American people on a regular basis, instead of serving leftover platitudes and moldy cliches to pre-approved audiences.

The fact that he didn't leads one to conclude that there was no plan against which progress could be measured. His lack of attention to those colossal details has contributed to much of his current grief.

Even so, the solution to American dissatisfaction and political disaffection unfortunately is not as simple as troop withdrawal. Setting an explicit deadline for "redeployment," as Senate democrats want, would be tantamount to condemning the Iraqi people to civil war, further destabilizing the Middle East, and handing victory to Osama bin Laden and his minions.

The White House may as well send engraved invitations to insurgents: U.S. troops leaving Iraq, midnight, December 31, 2005. Murder and mayhem to follow. Limited seating for beheadings. Reservations recommended.

Even without a deadline, the Senate resolution demonstrates poor timing and another victory for politics over principle. In less than a month, Iraqis are scheduled to vote for their first government under their new constitution. And we pick this moment to convey a weakening commitment?

But then, we always do, as our enemies have noted in their own planning for postwar Iraq. As we learned last month, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (both are senior al Qaeda leaders) that the lessons of Vietnam offered a road map for their own strategies:

"Things may develop faster than we imagine," he wrote. "The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam - and how they ran and left their agents - is noteworthy. Because of that, we must be ready starting now. ."

The balance of the letter, dated July 2005, focused on how to impose Islamic authority in Iraq and extend jihad to secular nations surrounding Iraq, leading to a clash with Israel. For people who plot time by centuries, waiting out America's tolerance for war is a cinch.

You don't have to be a Middle East expert, or a neo-con, to connect those dots. It's human nature. Like fear, the weak will carries a scent; and those who seek our destruction have a nose for it.

We may well regret stirring this nest, though it was probably inevitable. And those who opposed the war from the beginning, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, can enjoy what most other Democrats and many Republicans cannot: intellectual consistency.

But even those who can claim to have known better then have a moral duty now to act in the best interest of this country. For better or worse, our future appears to be tied irrevocably to that of Iraq.