May 24, 2007

Bush's Iraq victory rings hollow

Democrats back down from an Iraq war confrontation, but many say it is only a temporary victory for Bush and that the failure in Iraq will bring the Democrats to the White House in 2008.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (24/05/07)

Democrats stepped back from a growing confrontation with the White House over the conduct and funding of the Iraq war this week, ending a potentially politically damaging stalemate.

The back-down was interpreted by Republicans as a significant political victory for President George W Bush who won Democratic support for a redrafted US$100 billion supplemental appropriations bill, which provides funding for US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan through to September.

The negotiated compromise comes after Bush vetoed an earlier House bill over stipulations therein setting a timetable for future US troop withdrawals from Iraq, which the president adamantly opposes.

"I think it is a small temporary victory [for Bush], but it is not an unsurprising one given that they [Democrats] didn't have the votes to overturn the veto," Council on Foreign Relations analyst Peter Beinart told ISN Security Watch.

MIT Center for International Studies Executive-Director Dr John Tirman agreed, "I don't think it is a clear cut victory. I think that the Democrats realized that somebody had to compromise; and there were compromises actually on both sides."

"There are benchmarks, reporting requirements and some other elements of the bill that Bush did not originally want," he explained.

Democrats knew the initial bill would not escape a presidential veto but saw it as a significant move in establishing key points of differentiation between the two parties ahead of the November 2008 presidential poll.

Asked why the Democrats chose to make a stand on war funding now, Beinart replied, "The polling has moved in the country to such an extent that it is not as dangerous as it once was. The public is very dissatisfied with the war policy and with the surge."

He added that the growing importance of web activism meant that Democratic lawmakers were now under considerably more pressure to appease highly mobilized party activists.

While Iraq will not be the sole focus, the 2008 presidential race is increasingly shaping up as a referendum on Republican handling of the conflict.

Horse trading
In a political trade-off, Bush appears willing to sign off on elements of the new funding bill, stipulating benchmarks that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government must achieve in order to avoid cuts in reconstruction funding.

In return, Democrats agreed to drop all reference to timetables from the legislation.

According to reports, the bill will be debated by Congress on Thursday and is likely to face significant opposition from liberal Democrats, before passing comfortably with support from across the floor.

Democratic congressmen will have the opportunity to signal their ongoing opposition to the lack of timetables in the new bill by rejecting a second motion that excises US$17 billion in new spending allocations won by Democrats in negotiations with the White House.

The additional disbursements attached to the Iraq funding bill include a significant rise in the minimum wage and hurricane relief - measures designed to shore up the core Democratic vote.

Benchmarks
In the compromise bill, potential penalties for Iraqi non-compliance with established benchmarks, won by Democrats, are subject to presidential veto.

Asked if Bush would be willing to cut reconstruction aid, Tirman said, "I am not entirely clear on what the enforcement mechanisms are going to be; and this is always dodgy even when it is somewhat spelled out because Bush has been making 'signing statements' on bills," establishing his interpretation of congressional decisions.

Pushing the idea of benchmarks provides Democrats with a centrist, consensus position from which to rebuff Republican charges that they are undermining US forces in Iraq.

"The whole debate has a kabookie quality to it," Beinart said. "Any realistic assessment suggests that the Iraqi government is facing long-term problems that can't be addressed in weeks or even months."

"It is not too cynical to see some of the debate here in Washington as just trying to find a way of blaming the Iraqi government for America's withdrawal without there being a realistic opportunity that they could do anything to change that dynamic," he said.

Internal divisions
There has been media speculation in the wake of the Democratic back-down that past rifts within the party over Iraq could reappear, threatening the party's chances in the 2008 elections.

"I think there is going to be a little intramural skirmishing on Iraq among the Democrats," Tirman said. However, "there are fewer divisions now than there probably were six to eight months ago. Virtually the entire party is agreed that there should be a timetable for withdrawal."

"The [Democratic presidential] candidates will look for a little bit of advantage here and there […] but I think they want to stay more-or-less unified on this so as not to take away their main advantage in the general election," he said.

"The Democratic Party in Congress, even though it was inflated in the 2006 election by a group of people who represent somewhat more conservative districts in the south and Midwest, has actually held together quite well," Beinart agreed, "because even in conservative parts of the country the trend in public opinion is quite strongly anti-war."

While Democrats seek a unified, centrist position on Iraq, Republican presidential candidates face more serious challenges in dealing with the likely keystone campaign issue.

"I think that the chances that Republican unity can be maintained aren't that great," Beinart said. "The Republican party is looking at polling that is starting to look rather apocalyptic as we move forwards towards 2008; a public that is very anti-Iraq and very anti-Bush, and in danger of turning very anti-Republican generally."

According to Beinart, Republican candidates need to present themselves as proffering an honorable withdrawal from Iraq, saying, "We Republicans are ending this war but we're doing it in a dignified, responsible way. The Democrats just want to run with their tails between their legs to the exits."

"Republicans are much better served if they have some sort of withdrawal going into 2008," he added.

Familiar plan
There are increasing indications that the Bush administration is grudgingly recognizing the need to move towards the Iraq Study Group's proposals.

US and Iranian officials are to meet for bilateral negotiations on Iraq, after representatives of both states attended conferences in Baghdad and Sharm-el Sheikh on Iraq reconstruction. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem met on the sidelines of the Sharm summit, effectively ending the unilateral US diplomat boycott of the Baathist state.

'They do seem more open to talking to Iran and Syria than they were before and there definitely has been some movement," Beinart acknowledged.

"I think it still seems far off that the Bush administration would be willing to put the kinds of things on the table that would actually get some kind of deal or fundamental change in relations with Syria or Iran," he said.

Second surge?
Tirman noted that a media article this week purportedly revealed that a second troop deployment to Iraq was planned and would see US forces in Iraq strengthened significantly, "from 162,000 now to more than 200,000."

"Now, if that is true, then we are going to have another debate about this, which, I think, is going to overshadow the current debate about the surge and US policy," Tirman said.

Asked if charges that Democrats are not supporting the troops would stick, Tirman said: "I don't think that that is going to weigh on them in the long-run," and would not appeal to centrist voters.

Maintaining pressure
Democrats will have a second chance to raise the issue of war disbursements when legislation authorizing annual funding allocations to the Pentagon - the Defense Authorization and Defense Appropriations bills - comes before Congress, reportedly in September.

The Iraq funding bill to be debated this week is expected to require Bush to report to Congress on progress in Iraq in July and September.

US forces in Iraq General David Petraeus has also promised a progress report on the Iraq war in the same month, but - in a sign that he is seeking to take the political sting out of the update - said last week that his briefing would not contain "anything definitive."

If by September the Iraq government fails to promote genuine governance reform and the security situation in the country does not improve, a growing minority of Republican legislators have already indicated that they would come out openly against Bush's Iraq policy.

Despite pledging to again attach timetables for withdrawal to future legislation on war spending, Democrats may find it impolitic to promote a stand-off with the White House so far out from the election, but will look to maintain pressure.

Beinart explained: "The Democrats view is that the more times you get Republicans on record voting for the status quo the better […] you just keep the pressure on unrelentingly until they crack, so I think they'll use that [September votes and reports] as an opportunity."

Tirman told ISN Security Watch that he was "completely of the opinion that unless something very unusual happens […] the Democrats will win the election no matter who is nominated because Iraq is such an albatross around the Republicans neck and they don't have any plausible escape from public wrath."

"As long as the Democrats don't split dramatically on this – and I don't see any reason why they would - then this is the issue that will take them into the White House."




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Dr. Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East.

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