Wednesday, December 13, 2006; A21
Where do the Republicans' likely 2008 presidential candidates come down on Iraq?
You might think that a decent regard for the opinions of their fellow citizens, as registered in last month's elections, would rouse them from their Bushian dreams of victory in what has become a savage intra-Islamic war where the very notion of an American triumph makes no sense whatever.
You might think that, with the president's approval rating now sunk to near-Nixonian depths, Republican leaders, for their own good as well as their country's, might want to withdraw our men and women from Iraq before the next election.
But that would require the Republicans -- leaders and rank-and-file both -- to become a reality-based party. If their leading candidates are any indication, however, they're not yet willing to make that leap.
Front-runner John McCain, for instance, calls for a major increase in the size of the U.S. force and, with his fellow neoconservatives, rejects the Baker-Hamilton report because it rules out victory as a plausible option. "There's only one thing worse than an overstressed Army and Marine Corps," McCain said, "and that's a defeated Army and Marine Corps."
Rudy Giuliani, who was originally a member of the Baker-Hamilton commission but resigned midway through its proceedings (to be replaced by Ed Meese), called some of the commission's ideas "useful," but also told talk show host Dennis Prager that, "the idea of leaving Iraq, I think, is a terrible mistake." Newt Gingrich, attacking the report even before it was released, wondered whether Washington would ever have crossed the Delaware if waffling Jim Baker had been whispering in his ear.
McCain's position, at least, is sincerely held, as befits a candidate whose calling card is his integrity. Still, integrity in the pursuit of fantasy is no virtue. Lee Hamilton's estimate that we'd need to deploy an additional 50,000 to 100,000 troops "on a sustained basis" to reestablish order in Iraq sounds about right -- putting aside the question of what the Sunnis and Shiites would do when the troops finally left. But we don't have the troops. Some Army and Marine units in Iraq are on their third deployment. Who else, exactly, would McCain deploy? Customs agents? The Woodcraft Rangers? The editors of the Weekly Standard?
There's also the little matter of waning public support for the war.
In the new Newsweek poll, 48 percent of Americans say they want U.S. forces home within a year; 67 percent want them back within two years. A scant 23 percent believe they should stay "as long as it takes to achieve U.S. goals."
The political problem for GOP aspirants is that the overwhelming majority of that 23 percent is Republican. In the same Newsweek poll, just 39 percent said that invading Iraq had been the right course of action, but fully 67 percent of Republicans still endorsed the invasion. And life being unfair, they're likely to be the ones who will vote in the '08 presidential primaries.
So what's a Republican presidential hopeful to do? Concede the votes of those Republicans who have given up on the war to Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska maverick who cannot possibly win the nomination but whose realism on the war could make him the only electable Republican if we're still in Iraq in late '08? Or will Mitt Romney (who was in China last week, far from the Baker-Hamilton debates) or some other GOP aspirant place a long-shot bet on the revival of Republican realism (hoping the party will recognize both the futility of the war and the frustration of the American public) and call for the return of our troops?
There is, of course, a category of Republican officials who don't have to worry about their party's presidential primaries but are petrified at the prospect of being tossed out by the general electorate if the Iraqi occupation persists through November 2008: congressmen and senators. To save themselves, not to mention American troops, many of them may yet join with congressional Democrats to try to bring our men and women home before the next election, however mightily the president resists them. By so doing, however, they may just save the skin of the eventual Republican standard-bearer, whoever he be. For if winning the Republican nomination requires the candidate to vow to stay in this war till the end of recorded time -- and it may -- the only way a Republican could actually win the White House would be to have somebody, not him, withdraw American forces before it's time to vote. Bush would surely say this would happen over his dead body, but politically, Republican officials might have to choose between his dead body and their own.