IRAQ AND THE DEMOCRATS….Last week in The Nation, Ari Berman identified a growing disconnect in the Democratic party: at the same time that the anti-war left is gaining strength and demanding an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, the “strategic class” that dominates liberal foreign policy circles has remained resolutely hawkish. To be sure, they’ll criticize George Bush’s handling of the war, but they continue to insist that we need to maintain our military presence in Iraq anyway. The insurgency must be defeated.

Berman is right about this disconnect. Over a third of Americans now favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, a number that’s been growing steadily, but none of the “serious” public faces of the party ? people like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Kerry ? are ready to join them. Not one. I can’t think of a single exception.

This is shaping up to be a big problem. Right now, conventional wisdom suggests that Iraq is likely to be bad news for Republicans in the 2006 elections, but if liberals don’t watch out, the disconnect that Berman identified could cause an even bigger crackup on the Democratic side. The dovish left is losing patience with establishment hawks, and if this continues we can be sure that Karl Rove will do his best to hammer this wedge straight through the heart of the Democratic party as the 2006 midterms begin to heat up.

This is about the last thing we need, and both sides would be well advised to do some serious thinking before this internecine warfare gets out of hand. For its part, the dovish left needs to content itself with merely trying to win support for its position, rather than also demanding ritual public humiliations from ego-driven politicians. It ain’t gonna happen, and if it did it would do nothing but destroy their credibility and fracture the party anyway. So knock it off.

That part is easy. It’s the hawkish establishment that’s got the harder job, because they actually need to change their position. The problem is that it’s pretty easy to understand why none of them are willing to embrace immediate withdrawal: not only do they genuinely not think it’s a good idea, but they also know perfectly well that similar demands during the Vietnam war wrecked the Democratic party’s reputation on national security issues for a generation. Was that unfair? Sure. But unfair or not, they aren’t eager to see it happen again.

Of course, it’s also true that calling for immediate withdrawal would be a singularly gutsy move, and that’s not the hallmark of most politicians. What surprises me, though, is that none of them even has the guts to break ranks and advocate the course that’s probably the most sensible anyway: a gradual timed withdrawal. There are at least three good reasons why a publicly announced timetable for withdrawal makes sense:

  • The presence of American troops is what’s largely fueling the terrorism-driven Iraqi insurgency in the first place. Announcing in a credible way that we plan to leave ? really leave ? would at least partially draw its fangs.

  • As long as American troops are around, Iraqi leaders don’t have enough incentive to make the hard choices needed to agree on a constitution and train troops to guard their own country. A no-nonsense announcement from the U.S. would force them to get moving.

  • The military can’t keep up its current tempo in Iraq for much longer, and sometime in 2006 a drawdown is probably going to become necessary no matter what. If that’s the case, it’s better to do it on our own terms instead of waiting to be forced into it.

There are plenty of different ways you could propose a timed withdrawal. I made a fairly aggressive suggestion a couple of months ago, but there are lots of other possibilities too ? and none of them mean we need to abandon Iraq to the fates. Postwar aid has proven crucial to promoting stability and democracy in the aftermath of past conflicts, and we have every reason to be generous in providing reconstruction assistance of all kinds to the Iraqis after we leave. The important thing is to embrace the principle of withdrawal and Iraqi self-reliance, and do it without shilly shallying.

Our current policy in Iraq is a disaster that’s virtually certain to fail ? and Clinton, Biden, and Kerry know it. So why continue supporting it? The fact is that a timed withdrawal is probably good policy and good politics. On a substantive level it’s the policy most likely to work, and on a political level it’s the policy most likely to differentiate a future candidate from both the Bush administration and the gray hordes of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. It’s also popular. Although only a third of Americans favor immediate withdrawal, nearly two-thirds want to see us withdraw within the next year.

Still, advocating a timed withdrawal would take some guts. But being the first to seriously propose such a solution would also carry some rewards: the anti-war left would finally have someone to rally around and the Bush administration would finally have some serious competition. Is there anyone out there willing to do it?

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