It has unfortunately now become clear that despite certain promising trends in the December elections in Iraq, in general the situation is sharply deteriorating. The Sunni “awakening councils” – whose pacification was a critical part of the reduction in violence — have not been paid since last winter when responsibility for their payments was passed to the Shia army. Instead of the jobs and assimilation into the Shia-dominated army that they were promised, many “awakening council” members have been arrested and others have gone into hiding. Bombings have once again become regular and frequent events. All the major religious and ethnic groups are preparing for a renewal of fighting.
It now appears that even a “best-case” scenario for Iraq is a continuing level of sectarian violence that resembles past eras in Northern Ireland. The “worst-case” scenario is a return to the full scale, grotesquely violent ethnic civil war of 2006-2007.
The Republicans, because they are out of power (and committed to their “take no prisoners” propaganda strategy) are already beginning to prepare utterly opportunistic attacks on Obama and the Democrats regardless of what actually happens in Iraq.
• If Obama decides to slow the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (assuming this can be negotiated with the Iraqi government) Republicans will criticize him for failing to achieve a clear “victory”–i.e. to completely suppress the ethnic violence.
• If Obama sticks to his current plan for withdrawal while conditions worsen, Republicans will attack him for “losing” the war in Iraq that the surge had “won”.
This propaganda strategy requires almost no effort for the GOP. It is, in effect, a perfect “no- lose” situation for them. They just have to avoid inadvertently insulting the work of General Petraeus and the military while they attempt to assign the entire blame for whatever transpires onto Obama and the Democrats.
What should Democrats do in response? The first and most urgent challenge will be to present a unified and coherent response to the Republican attacks and to avoid the appearance of internal disarray. This will not be easy because there are at least three quite distinct strategic views about Iraq within the Democratic Party — and more if one includes the formerly Republican neoconservative military strategists who — in an extraordinary case of instant mass epiphany — all rediscovered the virtues of principled political nonpartisanship around 11:03 P.M. last November 4th (as one observer acutely noted, “they did not flee the sinking Republican ship; they teleported”).
But, even as Democrats continue to debate alternative military strategies among themselves, they can, without contradiction, also present a unified response to Republican attacks. The basic theme of this response should be that there is a fundamental difference between responsible and irresponsible criticism. Obama, General Petraeus, and the other military advisors face deeply difficult, “no easy answer” trade-offs regarding how to allocate limited troops and deal with deeply rooted interethnic violence. Republicans who want to criticize Obama’s strategy therefore have an obligation to confront key questions like the following:
• In order to deal with the current shortage of available troops, should the U.S. bring back the draft? Should it hire 50,000 or more additional paid mercenaries to fill the gaps? If a Republican is not in favor of these steps, then he or she must explain where the troops will be found to carry out any broadened U.S. mission before he or she criticizes Obama.
• To deal with rising ethnic violence in Iraq, should the U.S. resume the payments to the “Awakening Councils, even if the Maliki government objects? Should the U.S. redeploy increased numbers of American troops to Iraq’s major cities to maintain peace between Shia and Sunni? If not, then Republican critics must explain exactly what alternative strategy it is that they propose before they criticize Obama. Demanding “victory” is not an alternative military strategy – it is a goal.
When Republicans attack Obama without honestly answering these kinds of questions — as they most surely will — Dems should consistently make three parallel points about the difference between sincere debates over military strategy and the following key phrase — “irresponsible political posturing”:
• Partisan demands for “victory” or “success” which do not include a realistic plan to provide the troops and resources needed to achieve those goals are irresponsible political posturing.
• Partisan accusations that Obama’s strategy “is failing” or has “failed” which do not offer a coherent alternative strategy are irresponsible political posturing.
• Partisan attacks on Obama and the Democrats as showing “weakness” but which offer no alternative strategy are irresponsible political posturing.
In short, Democrats should respond to Republican attacks on Obama by insisting that Republicans have a patriotic obligation to the troops and to the county to offer serious and responsible military alternatives rather than empty partisan rhetoric. The American people understand that there are no easy, magic solutions in Iraq. If the Republican “alternative” is to pretend that magic solutions exist, they will not receive the support of most Americans.
Democrats should as their very first response to Republican attacks consistently and repeatedly assert the basic demand that Republicans avoid “irresponsible political posturing” on this issue. Democrats should insist that if Republicans engage in this kind of shamelessly irresponsible behavior, they do not even deserve to be answered; they deserve to be condemned and ignored.