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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Iraq and Vietnam

There’s lots of things going on this week in the tangled politics and policy of U.S. policy towards Iraq. I’ve already commented on Bush’s latest big speech on the subject; indeed, I may have been uncharacteristically too generous towards the slippery Chief Executive, based on subsequent analysis of the Great Big Policy Document he released along with his speech.The DLC issued its own assessment today, not only challenging Bush’s continued happy-talk on Iraq (and its unwillingness to show a change of strategy by, say, firing Donald Rumsfeld), but also disagreeing with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s ill-timed endorsement of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, combined with an unhelpful I’m-not-speaking-for-the-House-Caucus-but-they-secretly-agree-with-me statement. Beyond these large points, there was another negative assessment of Bush’s speech from an unusual quarter with an unusual message: Lawrence Kaplan of The New Republic. A writer often described as a Democratic neocon, and an unambiguous supporter of the Iraq war effort, Kaplan takes on Bush’s claim that the military is now adopting state-of-the-art counterinsurgency methods learned in Vietnam, and pretty much hits it like a pinata from several different directions. It’s definitely worth reading. Matt Yglesias’ comment on Kaplan’s piece is quite good as well.And speaking of Iraq and Vietnam, I had one of those old-guy moments today when I suddenly remembered a moment in the debate on Vietnam which reminds me of the odd disjunction between the relatively small policy differences dividing most Democrats and many Republicans on Iraq, and the big tonal and intepretative differences they sometimes convey.In the famously fractious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the big platform debate over Vietnam (note to young people: this was back when big platform debates were still possible) involved a majority plank which endorsed free elections in South Vietnam to create a coalition government including the National Liberation Front (the political arm of the Viet Cong), and a minority plank endorsing a coalition government including the NLF that would be required to sponsor free elections. The policy distinctions between these two planks were about as meaningful as today’s difference between supporters of a benchmarked withdrawal from Iraq based on estimated dates, and a timetable withdrawal contingent on benchmarks. Yet at the time, these two proposals were almost universally described by the news media as “pro-war” and “anti-war” platform planks. The lesson is this: So much as many of us might wish to focus on the policy details of proposals about what to do now in Iraq, you can’t take the politics out of politics, and the “tonal” or “contextual” implications of various proposals, despite their substantive similarity, matter a great deal.

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