Iraq? It's always bad for the Democrats

But the goal posts are the only things shifting.

Published November 26, 2007 5:51PM (EST)

Recent security gains in Iraq haven't done much to alter U.S. public opinion about the war: In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month, only 27 percent of the public approved of the way George W. Bush is handling the war -- exactly the same percentage that approved when the surge began in the early months of this year.

But some stories never die, or at least have a way of resurrecting themselves, and the Iraq-as-a-problem-for-the-Democrats tale sure seems to be one of them. Never mind that, in an ABC/Washington Post poll taken at the end of October, Americans said by a 16-point margin that they trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle the war better -- the biggest advantage for the Democrats in more than a year. If things are going well in Iraq, it must be bad for the Democrats, right?

Right. Or so says the New York Times, which had the latest installment of the suffering-Democrats chestnut Sunday in the form of Patrick Healy's front-pager, "As Democrats See Security Gains in Iraq, Tone Shifts." Healy says the leading Democratic presidential candidates are "undertaking a new and challenging balancing act on Iraq: acknowledging ... success, trying to shift the focus to the lack of political progress there, and highlighting more domestic concerns like health care and the economy."

"Lately, as the killing in Baghdad and other areas has declined," Healy writes, "the Democratic candidates have been dwelling less on the results of the troop escalation than on the lack of new government accords in Iraq -- a tonal shift from last summer and fall when American military commanders were preparing to testify before Congress asking for more time to allow the surge to show results."

The evidence of this "tonal shift"? Healy cites this statement from Hillary Clinton: "Our troops are the best in the world; if you increase their numbers they are going to make a difference ... The fundamental point here is that the purpose of the surge was to create space for political reconciliation, and that has not happened, and there is no indication that it is going to happen, or that the Iraqis will meet the political benchmarks. We need to stop refereeing their civil war and start getting out of it."

Is that a "tonal shift"? You decide.

Here's Clinton, speaking in August before the Veterans of Foreign Wars: "We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar province, it's working. We're just years too late changing our tactics ... Our troops did everything our country asked of them ... They were asked to give the Iraqi government the space and time they needed to do what only the Iraqis can do to stabilize their own country ... I do not believe that we alone can impose a military solution. And I do not think the Iraqis are ready to do what they have to do for themselves yet. Therefore, I think it is unacceptable for our troops to be caught in the crossfire of a sectarian civil war while the Iraqi government is on vacation. I think it is time the Iraqi government took responsibility for themselves and their country."

While it's true that Clinton put a greater emphasis on the security situation during her questioning of Gen. David Petraeus in September, she still noted that the real purpose of the "surge" was to give the Iraqi government the breathing space it needed for political reconciliation -- and that that reconciliation wasn't happening. She said she felt little comfort "that the Iraqi leadership is yet ready to put aside their sectarian, commercial and personal interests for some kind of greater Iraqi political reconciliation," and she noted that there was "very little hard evidence" to support the idea that the Iraqi government was doing what it needed to do.

Barack Obama took a similar approach when he had a turn with Petraeus in September. "I think the surge has had some impact," he said. "I would hope it would, given the sacrifices and loss that have been made. I would argue that the impact has been relatively modest given the investment." Obama said that "we haven't seen, most importantly, any significant improvement in terms of the central government's performance. It continues to be ineffectual, and we have not seen national reconciliation of the sort that was promised prior to the surge."

John Edwards? As Petraeus testified in September, Edwards said: "We heard today the surge is working, when several independent reports have found that it's not. We heard about statistics from particular areas, like Anbar, that don't fairly represent the entire country ... Worst of all, we heard that there are no concrete steps toward the comprehensive political solution that will end the violence once and for all and put Iraq on the path to stability."

Is it a "tonal shift" for Clinton, Obama and Edwards to recognize that the U.S. military seems to be making more progress on the security front now than it was in September? Maybe. But the real "shift" here is the shifting of the goal posts, as the Times acknowledged in a different piece Sunday. The purpose of the surge wasn't to improve the security situation; it was to improve the security situation so that political reconciliation could take place. That's what the president's people said when he announced his surge back in January and as late as this summer, and that's what Clinton, Obama, Edwards and the other Democratic candidates have been saying all along.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Iraq War John Edwards War Room