Good news, but not for Democrats

IT’S A WAR, and it’s the Middle East, so glad tidings can go sour and there are never any guarantees. But for all the caveats, the news from Iraq has been heartening.

IT’S A WAR, and it’s the Middle East, so glad tidings can go sour and there are never any guarantees. But for all the caveats, the news from Iraq has been heartening.

For months, observers have been crediting General David Petraeus’s “surge” with remarkable progress on the ground. That message has come not only from longtime supporters of the war, but from some tough critics as well.

Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, analysts at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, jolted Washington with their July 30 op-ed column, “A War We Just Might Win.” Eleven days later, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which had long pronounced the war a misbegotten disaster, radically revised its view. “The US military is more successful in Iraq than the world wants to believe,” journalist Ullrich Fichtner reported. So much so that the outcome the Bush administration “erroneously predicted before their invasion — that the troops would be greeted with candy and flowers — could in fact still come true.”

More good news came just this week in a breakthrough announced by Iraq’s top Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and the Kurdish regional president, Massoud Barzani, are joining forces on legislation to settle some of the thorniest issues bedeviling Iraqi politics, including a national oil policy, an easing of de-Baathification, and the release of certain detainees.

For most Americans, positive developments in Iraq are very welcome. But good news is bad news for the Democratic left, where opposition to the war has become an emotional investment in defeat. House majority whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina was asked by the Washington Post what Democrats would think if Petraeus reports next month that the war is going well. “That would be a real big problem for us,” Clyburn candidly replied.

The intensity of the left’s determination to abandon Iraq was reflected in the reaction to a single line in Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars last week. “We’ve begun to change tactics in Iraq,” she said, referring to the surge, “and in some areas, particularly al-Anbar province, it’s working.”

That mild comment instantly drew fire from Clinton’s Democratic rivals. John Edwards’s campaign manager, David Bonior, warned her against “undermining the effort in the Congress to end this war.” New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, another presidential hopeful, piled on: “The surge is not working. I do not give President Bush the same credit on Iraq that Hillary does.” When Barack Obama addressed the VFW one day later, he stuck to the defeatists’ script. “Obama Sees a ‘Complete Failure’ in Iraq,” The New York Times headlined its report on Aug. 22.

Within 48 hours, Clinton was scurrying to toe the all-is-lost line once again: “The surge was designed to give the Iraqi government time to take steps to ensure a political solution. It has failed. . . . We need to . . . start getting out now.”

Since 2002, Clinton has been all over the lot on Iraq. She defended George W. Bush’s claims on WMDs. She opposed setting a timetable for withdrawal. She voted yes on authorizing the war. She voted no on funding the troops. We likely haven’t seen the last of her shape-shifting.

Clinton is hardly the only presidential candidate prepared to say whatever it takes to get elected or to retreat under pressure from her party’s hard-liners. But it is worth pointing out: There is a principled alternative.

Consider Brain Baird, a liberal Democratic congressman from Washington state. He has opposed the Iraq war from the outset, and still believes, as he wrote in a Seattle Times column on Friday, that it “may be one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes in the history of our

nation.” But having recently come to believe that the new military strategy is working and premature US withdrawal would be disastrous, he is speaking out in support of staying the course. Naturally he is being denounced on the left; one influential blogger calls him a “Bush dog” and “Dick Cheney’s trained monkey” and a crowd of angry antiwar constituents berated him during a townhall meeting Monday night. (“We don’t care what your convictions are,” said one. “You are here to represent us.”) The heat is unpleasant. But Baird is standing his ground.

That is what John F. Kennedy called a profile in courage, and it is troubling that there are no such profiles among the Democrats running for president this year. JFK was elected at a time when Americans could trust his party to confront international threats with resolve. That changed after Vietnam, where the Democratic left insisted on defeat and got its way, only to lose voters’ trust on national security for a long time thereafter.

Today the left insists on defeat in Iraq. It beats up any Democrat who strays off-message. It treats good news from the front as “a real big problem.” Is that any way to win an election? In the short term, maybe. But we’re in the midst of a long-term war — one that Americans don’t want to lose.

Jeff Jacoby’s e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.


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