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August 25, 2005

The Politics of Withdrawal

Armando and Jerome are talking about the politics of withdrawal, which is about where my mind has settled recently. For all the reasons I've laid out, and for all the better reasons others have laid out, I'm firmly convinced that our continued, indefinite presence in the country achieves absolutely nothing. On the other hand, I'm similarly certain that an inept or overly fatalist call for withdrawal will be marketed to the American people as retreat, and retreat is not the sort of sentiment that wins elections.

Yeah, that's craven, but once you know what you want to do, you have to think about how it sells. Americans aren't particularly pleased with the war, but nor are they ever willing to vote for a loss. If Democrats stand on one side of the stage and talk about our unwinnable quagmire and Republicans stand on the other and explain how, yes, mistakes were made, but we can still finish the job, and General Know-Nothing says we're just a few months from completion and can't turn away now, I think the Republican will win. Not everywhere, but in the close districts where we need to pickup support. And I think that because we've seen this before. We've seen it in Vietnam, but hell, the dynamic goes back to the war of 1812. The antiwar position has never been an electoral winner and I see no reason to believe it's become one now.

That's why our model -- and I'm going to get so flamed for saying this -- shouldn't be McGovern in 1972, it should be Nixon. If McGovern agreed with the left side of the spectrum, Nixon courted the vaguely antiwar middle with a "secret plan to end the war" that would secure "peace with honor". He promised a win even if we were going to lose, and in doing so occupied a lot of political territory that left McGovern on the fringe.

Right now, the polls suggest a similar move. 13% want us to send more troops (the McCain position), 28% want us to muddle on as we are now, 23% want us to withdraw some of our boys, and 33% want a full pullout. For those keeping score at home, that means 41% want to continue this fight and 56% want to end it. But the "withdraw some" folks are weak, they don't have a very set belief in what we should be doing there, so they're groping for a midway point between retreat and the status quo. They're soft and, in a campaign, could break either way.

Starting from the supposition that Democrats should call for a structured withdrawal because it's the right thing to do, how do you sell it? Which is to say, how can you call for withdrawal without appearing to codify an American loss?

Now, I'm no pollster, no strategist, and no campaign consultant but, come to think of it, I've not lost many elections, either, so this is my opinion, and take it for what it's worth. Withdrawal, despite the frame it's currently in, doesn't have to be presented as recognition of a quagmire or ass-kicking. It doesn't have to be a loss. The case can be made that Bush's mistake, aside from his fatal mismanagement, was massive overreach. He wanted to do much more than America should. Our "job", our aim, was to depose a tyrant, halt his (fictitious) weapons programs, free the Iraqi people, get them back on their feet, and get the fuck out.

We did depose the tyrant, we did ensure he had no weapons programs, we did "free" the Iraqi people, we helped them hold elections, helped them form a government, and soon, hopefully, they'll have a constitution. Once their army is largely trained, that's the end of America's job. What's happening, now, is the expected result of us continuing a project that is already completed. Eventually, freedom means independence. It means taking responsibility for your own future and working things out. Our job in Iraq is complete. Hovering over it like a worried parent accompanying their kid to college is just making the country lash out at us.

Americans, so far as I can tell, don't like to lose wars. It screws up the mystique, is bad for the complexion. And they don't want to lose this one. The danger in calling for withdrawal isn't that they'll disagree with the policy, but that the Republicans will reframe it into a certain loss vs. a potential win. That's why, when we speak of it, it shouldn't be a loss, it doesn't have to be a win, it just has to be the end. Completion. Our country, contrary to what Bush thought, can't do more than this, we can't force another nation to grow up as we wish. The Iraqis have to do that themselves. And we need to leave simply because that's the next step in the process. After we've created a 100,000 man standing army, there's nothing more we can do there, and leaving is simply the next step in the process.

In 1972, Nixon promised to end the war, but he did so in such a way that the only space left on the political spectrum was for someone to promise a troop buildup that the country wouldn't support or an immediate withdrawal. McGovern did the latter. And whatever post-Wallace realignment you want to ascribe to him, he got stomped. The country is firmly in favor of some sort of withdrawal. But only 33% want a complete pullout. If we offer a structured, deliberate drawdown and frame it so our appeal doesn't sound antiwar, but simply logical, we'll squeeze off much of the Republican's room for movement. At that point, they can either become peaceniks, promise no changes, or call for a draft. And you know what? I'm willing to take on any of those.

August 25, 2005 in Iraq | Permalink

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» New Goals For Victory from One Caveat
Ezra has some very interesting and intuitive thoughts about a potential U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.Most notably, Now, I'm no pollster, no strategist, and no campaign consultant but, come to think of it, I've not lost many elections, either, so [Read More]

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Ed. note: This post will stay at the top of the page, please scroll down for more recent entries. UPDATE: Check out this post by Ezra Klein. I think its a good summation of my thought processes on the politics of withdrawal. I’m working on a m... [Read More]

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» The Politics of Withdrawal from Grouchy's Liberaltopia
Digby points us to Ezra Klein's Politics of withdrawal. The Politics of Withdrawal Armando and Jerome are talking about the politics of withdrawal, which is about where my mind has settled recently. For all the reasons I've laid out, and... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2005 4:17:07 AM

» The Politics of Withdrawal from Grouchy's Liberaltopia
Digby points us to Ezra Klein's Politics of withdrawal. The Politics of Withdrawal Armando and Jerome are talking about the politics of withdrawal, which is about where my mind has settled recently. For all the reasons I've laid out, and... [Read More]

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» The Politics of Withdrawal from Grouchy's Liberaltopia
Digby points us to Ezra Klein's Politics of withdrawal. The Politics of Withdrawal Armando and Jerome are talking about the politics of withdrawal, which is about where my mind has settled recently. For all the reasons I've laid out, and... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 26, 2005 4:25:09 AM

Comments

We did depose the tyrant, we did ensure he had no weapons programs, we did "free" the Iraqi people, we helped them hold elections, helped them form a government, and soon, hopefully, they'll have a constitution. Once their army is largely trained, that's the end of America's job.

This is as good of a summation of the case for pulling out as I've seen. Pulling out doesn't have to be seen as losing the war, like it was for Vietnam. Despite the fact that the anti-war folks back then turned out to be on the right side of the issue, many people still blamed them for being "anti-american". I hesitate to say that it would be this simple to get across, but the best way to sell it might just be to say that we accomplished what we set out to do. Unless we truly want an American Empire (and this would no doubt be an electoral loser of a position), we can't micromanage the new government of Iraq.

Posted by: Matt F | Aug 25, 2005 12:32:40 PM

I'd always thought Nixon ran on the "secret plan" in '68. Anyway, I think the way to sell withdrawl politically is as a strategy for victory. Kevin Drum has a post up today on how announcing a timetable for withdrawl will help us achieve our objectives; if some Dem politician were to make the rounds with a similar idea, it might be quite politically potent.

Posted by: Greg | Aug 25, 2005 12:35:32 PM

Ezra, I've been obsessing about this, as well. FWIW (and this is a direct contradiction of previous things I've thought):

We're actually in the enviable (unenviable?) position of being able to carp from the sidelines w/o providing specifics. Look, even if we *wanted* to do something radically different, we wouldn't be able to. And, if we provide an "official" counteresponse to the GOP, *that* would become the issue, not the Admin's current prosecution of the war.

So what to do from a political standpoint? Remember, we're not running for the WH right now -- we need to regain Congress, which means winning seats in districts that may be more hawkish than others. So we need to provide leeway to candidates -- which means that on a national language we need to be vague.

I would focus, immediately, on the *conduct* of the occupation and focus on Rumsfeld's miscalculations, rather than whether or not we should pullout and whether we should have clear guidelines on pullouts. Oh, and some gratitous swipes that this is all Bush's (and the GOP's) responsibility -- he got us there, he has no way to get us out now. Oh, and state that the answer of previous deaths being in vain is to not indefinitely send others to their death w/o a plan with an actual endgame.

Nixon won in part b/c he was viewed as better suited to prosecute the Vietnam War in order for us to eventually get us out -- not b/c he wanted to get us out.

We shouldn't be too specific from a craven, political standpoint.

Posted by: Chris R | Aug 25, 2005 12:56:21 PM

Nixon ran on the "secret plan" in '68. In '72 he ran on the notion of "staying the course"/"peace is at hand." Bush is emulating Nixon's '72 strategy, not the Democrats, and it's doing so well it's knocking him down to a 41% approval rating.

This is one of the many, many, many examples of why historical analogies really don't work. We like them because we like the idea of history repeating itself, but the fact is that history isn't that clean or that cyclical. The Democratic Party's problems are not the same now as they were in '72 or in '68.

Frankly, today's party could be helped immensely by strong figures that project a military-positive image of hawkishness (Wes Clark, anyone?) selling a pull-out as the only strong policy after a war that's needlessly overstretched and exhausted our military. We need to reframe the entire war as a war that has weakened America and weakened the military. The war has made Americans feel vulnerable, both to terror and to military defeat in general. Americans will buy this message coming from the right party packaging it in the right way.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Aug 25, 2005 1:05:15 PM

I'm a bit confused. How is your plan for keeping the troops in Iraq to provide stability until a government is formed and the Iraqi army and police are able to take over different from Bush's plan to keep the troops in Iraq until a government is formed and the Iraqi Army and police are able to take over?

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 25, 2005 1:05:32 PM

I'm a bit confused. How is your plan for keeping the troops in Iraq to provide stability until a government is formed and the Iraqi army and police are able to take over different from Bush's plan to keep the troops in Iraq until a government is formed and the Iraqi Army and police are able to take over?

Different definitions of "stability", or so I gather. The administration seems like it wants to have a strategic partnership with the new government in Iraq to jointly defeat the insurgents/terrorists. Ezra seems to be saying that we should leave and let the Iraqis handle it, since this was supposed to be about liberating them (we did that), and getting involved in a civil war wouldn't end well for us.

Posted by: Matt F | Aug 25, 2005 1:11:30 PM

I'm a bit confused. How is your plan for keeping the troops in Iraq to provide stability until a government is formed and the Iraqi army and police are able to take over different from Bush's plan to keep the troops in Iraq until a government is formed and the Iraqi Army and police are able to take over?
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The folks running it. And that's all we need to provide to provide an viable alternative by 2008.

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Aug 25, 2005 1:16:11 PM

We must be careful to distinguish in our Dem. minds what Bush is saying from what he is doing, or we will likely get our stance on the wrong foot.

Bush is saying 'stay the course' and indicating that until a constitution, new government, and enough forces to ensure stability are in place through our training we can't draw down our presence.

At the same time on the 'doing' side, Bush is making deals with the Shia and Kurds to get a constitution on Bush's 2006 US election-year schedule, yielding to those who want a Islamic state and Sharia, and allowing militias to gain control over the country. The Centcom staff is planning a major drawdown in 2006.

I generally agree with Ezra that we should be withdrawing, but should be very careful to consider the US political aftermath of taking a withdrawal (recognizing the US failure) position. For the Dems to say we have achieved our goals and its time to go home is, in reality, just the spoken Dem version of Bush's actual, but unstated, plans. This will be very hard for the Dems to explain without getting stuck in Bush's spider web.

Bush is going to declare victory and bring lots of troops home in 2006. That appears to be a fact, even though he is saying 'stay the course'. He will try very hard to slaughter any domestic opposition that takes a position that can be framed as anti-war, pro-withdrawal without victory, or anti-war-on-terror.

We cannot and should not be silent on Iraq, as some leading Dem figures seem to prefer, but these are perilous waters for the Dems. I haven't heard an articulated story line yet that can play well against Bush from the Dems - but Ezra is getting closer. I fear that it will be misrepresented in various ways by the media to be a Dem. cut and run strategy, while Bush does exactly that and proclaims victory over terror and freedom for Iraq.

My personal angst is that BushCo and friends are now apparently willing to support and allow a federalized or fragmented Iraq, with a Constitution that enshrines an Islamic state, and call that victory for freedom. That is just bullshit, and deeply shameful.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 25, 2005 2:01:41 PM

Or, perhaps we need to be saying what the real liberal hawks have been saying all along:

Go back to fighting the war on terror. Iraq has been a distraction. George Bush has made us weak. He misled Congress and the American people on his certainty about WMDs, which is why we pursued this fight. But we are spinning our wheels now.

Right now, George Bush has succeeded in finding no WMDs, starting an insurrection that targets Americans and won't end, and producing a Constitution that enshrines the People's Islamic Republic of Iraq.

This is not what we signed up for.

We need to get back to fighting the War on Terror. We need to do more in Afghanistan, we need to get our hands on the loose nukes in wherever, we need to...

And to do that, we need our troops out of the quagmire that is Iraq. So they can fight the real war on terror.

We are not fucking anti-war. We are anti-stupid battles that make us lose the fucking war. We are RESOLUTELY pro-war.

Posted by: theorajones | Aug 25, 2005 2:58:57 PM

If your caught on the horns of a delemma, scratch your ass.

I think the two pronged approach is working already. By keeping steady grass roots pressure on the President to either withdraw completely, or commit the troops necessay to win, he looses his political leeway and is stuck with his onward through the fog position, while we keep the courage of our convictions. As the situation developes Hillary and Russ, et. al., can moderate their positions without committing to any specifics advocated by the "fickle" grass roots.

With 33% already committed to withdrawal it is worth reiterating the corruption of the profiteers, the lies that led to the war, and the mismanagement of the occupation and try and push that number higher. Stack on the political corruption at home, and fire at will. Whatever Bush does, start nailing him with something else on the net, Social Security, Veterans Health, National Health, Abu Graib, Plame, the Environment. Perhaps have weekly flash blogging on a specific issue, organized by cells or rings, to keep it cool with MSM till the top pops off. All it would take is an email from guys like you to guys like you to organize.

Whatever we do, we can't stand still, so shoot like hell and holler. Given enough rope they'll hang themselves, so we ought to making a lot of rope out of all these threads.

Posted by: EZSmirkzz | Aug 25, 2005 3:15:31 PM

I think there was value to the Vietnam protesters; even if they didn’t help the Dem party immediately, they said what was true. There are things you can’t win. You say admitting defeat would ruin the mystique: well good, it’s an evil belief that can cause much harm to the world and whenever we set it back a couple decades that’s a boon.

And I think “withdraw now, or at very well established timepoint” is as good as anything else, politically speaking. It’s clear and easy to get across. If you go for the middle of “withdraw eventually” you risk still getting painted as chickens by the Republicans, and opportunists to boot. And you saw that chart, 33% of Americans believe it’s the right position, and it looks like 56% believes it more than they do what the President believes.

Ezra, you seem to say “withdraw when there are enough Iraqi soldiers”. Who hasn’t said that? That’s the Bush Admin line to me. I honestly don’t know Iraqi politics as well as an Arabic speaking college professor who’s lived there or some cleric who helps run things, so I’m just being pessimistic here, but why do you think we’re going to get troops to secure the place anytime soon? They haven’t materialized in two years, and it doesn’t seem they’re popping up any faster. The ones that do are dominated by sectional loyalties, and to the degree that is problematic (such as infiltration by enemies) I don’t think that’s going away either.

It’s ugly, really really ugly.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Aug 25, 2005 3:22:05 PM

Democrats absolutely need to make his Iraqi failure stick to Bush like hot tar. That's why the twin questions are critically important, and must be asked of Bush: What's "our" objective? What's your plan to get out?

Democrats should never call for withdrawal, but they should assume that an objective and an exit strategy are the twin elements of the overall plan. And, Bush has to do it.

You are absolutely right that Democrats cannot win on a "antiwar" platform, per se. But, please notice, that Bush is President until January, 2009. The U.S. cannot withdraw from Iraq, until Bush withdraws from Iraq.

It is Bush, not the Democrats, who need a plan for Iraq. If Bush doesn't get the U.S. out of Iraq, before Summer 2008, we can worry then how the Democrats frame withdrawal as a policy goal. Until then, step back, and hammer Bush for failing, failing every day in every way.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 25, 2005 5:59:16 PM

So I guess you'd go for the "Eff the towelheads, we're goin' home" marketing plan.

When the party in power lies to the American people, and those lies lead directly and immediately to negative consequences, and the party out of power cannot make gains by telling the truth and advocating a different policy, then we are in more trouble than I have the strength to contemplate.

Posted by: James E. Powell | Aug 25, 2005 8:31:00 PM

Ezra, I agree completely. The Republicans lost Iraq and it can only take us to build a better outcome.

The party in power, Republicans hold every branch of government. Starting with the yesterday's planning and continuing with today's insurgency, President Bush and his administration have gone beyond miscalculation. They've lost. The war, for all intents and purposes, is over and the Republicans lost. Not the Democrats. Not America. The Republicans.

I spend a lot of time here taking shots at President Bush – and rightly so – for his waging an unjust war built on lies made on purpose and with a purpose. What would I do, however? How would I construct an exit strategy, a progressive answer to our regressive foreign policy? Here's a start.

Posted by: Joseph | Aug 25, 2005 8:58:54 PM

I say if Americans are going to go against Democrats because the noise machine says we want to retreat, then by all means give the idiots what they want.

If we are going to achieve any measure of stability, we will need far more troops than we have now. Right now we are stuck between two hard choices: withdraw and leave Iraq to the likely chaos, or make the necessary sacrifices in manpower in order to achieve a level of peace. And we must do it in a way that signals we have no intention in staying in Iraq indefinitely. If it includes a draft, so be it. But let it be known that Democrats are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to right a REPUBLICAN mistake.

Posted by: ItAintEazy | Aug 26, 2005 12:42:04 PM

For the Dems to say we have achieved our goals and its time to go home is, in reality, just the spoken Dem version of Bush's actual, but unstated, plans.

I agree. And that is partially why I am unsure of any political gain to be had over the war at this point. The only way Dems could actually distinguish themselves from Bush is to a.) say pullout now OR b.) set actual date deadlines for withdrawl. An actual, clear plan. In my personal experience, I see the people around me wanting a clear plan. The "pull-out" crowd (that just sounds dirty) wants to KNOW where, when, and how. They don't identify with "stay the course" because to them all that entails is more quaqmire.

I disagree that we should instead focus on Rumsfeld and the mistakes. There is enough of a chatter about that right now. If someone doesn't believe at this point in the conflict that Bush and Rummy screwed up, do you think more chattering is going to help? And don't you think that walking that fine line could end up with the opposite effect? "Dems just complain, they have no plan, so why should we elect them?" That is what you'll hear over and over again.

I think we, and that means you Ezra, should come up with a specific plan. Show Americans that even though we are out of power, we are still the right people to make smart policy decisions.

Posted by: Adrock | Aug 26, 2005 1:54:49 PM

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