President Bush spent much of last week addressing the decline of support, at least as measured in public opinion polls, for the war in Iraq. In his speech in Idaho last Wednesday, he focused on honoring both fallen soldiers and those who continue to fight, and the necessity that we stay the course until the job is done. While it is certainly necessary to rally support for the war by making speeches and presenting arguments against an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, more than that will be needed for the American public to make an informed decision in the 2008 presidential election.
Some of the slogans on the signs waved by the followers of Cindy Sheehan indicate that many Iraq war critics are protesting on the basis of bad intelligence. (I will save discussion of that irony for another day.) But the slogans repeated by protesters are just a sampling of the myths that have been repeated often enough that average Americans may have already accepted them as fact. The claims of war critics have gone largely unanswered for too long, so at some point before the 2008 Presidential election an effort should be made to “set the record straight” about the reasons we went to war in Iraq.
Some of the sillier claims of the anti-war, anti-Bush Left don’t deserve attention. The “war for oil” and “they enlisted to fight for Halliburton” mantras fit into this category. Others, however, such as the claim that Bush lied about WMD, and that Saddam had no connections to terrorism, need to be addressed.
Hopefully, by 2008, we will have reduced troop levels so that the war in Iraq will not be the big issue that it is now. But with North Korea, Iran and other hot spots on the horizon, many of the same issues will be raised. Unfortunately, I can easily imagine a scenario in which the arguments for and against the war in Iraq could be made all over again, only with different names being substituted for Iraq and Saddam.
What is rarely, if ever, addressed by the opponents of President Bush and the current war is whether or not the decision he made was a correct one if everything we thought about the status of Saddam’s WMD capability had been correct. Dick Cheney made the argument for the decision in at least one speech around the time of the release of the Kay report. In that speech he argued that knowing what we knew then, and looking at it in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, it would have been irresponsible NOT to have invaded Iraq. Republicans who fail to make that case, and instead weaken their stance on the war in reaction to declining public opinion polls, risk losing the advantage they have long held over Democrats on issues of national security and defense. Even many of those voters who have not supported the Iraq war and view President Bush as a trigger happy cowboy are likely to prefer a candidate that supports the war – even if there are some reservations about the way the war was executed – to one who originally supported it only to back down when the going got tough.
It is still entirely possible, though, that Democrats will decide to bow to their anti-war element and choose a candidate who never supported the war at all. Mickey Kaus recently made the observation that all of Hillary Clinton’s planning did not prepare her for the situation that now exists in the Democratic party. “The same press drumbeat of defeatism about Iraq that has helped bring down Bush's numbers has also emboldened the party's mainstream left base (i.e., not just MoveOn or the DailyKos crowd). They hardly care whether Hillary is a member of the DLC. But they do not want to support someone who voted for the war, as Hillary did. Worse, they want a Democrat who is willing to break from the respectable Beltway Tough-It-Out Consensus now, publicly, in a way Hillary has been unable to do. They're so desperate for a champion they're even temporarily captivated by Sen. Hagel's mere mention of "Vietnam." Hagel/Dean for America! Or maybe Hagel/Gingrich. ...”
I believe the poll numbers we are seeing now on Iraq will improve as a result of upcoming events such as the vote for the Iraqi constitution and the trial of Saddam Hussein. But if they do not, those on the Left may be emboldened enough by Bush’s declining poll numbers, and specifically by declining support for the mission in Iraq, that a Hillary Clinton nomination, once thought by many to be a done deal, could be in serious question. If it is, the argument over the original decision to invade Iraq will be more relevant than ever, and that is why Republicans should start now to set the record straight.