The great Washington rush to judgment is on. After an election loss, there is always a time for recriminations, blood-letting and eventually regrouping. President Bush and congressional Republicans alike were stung by the loss of Congress, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was soon after designated as the requisite human sacrifice under such circumstances. All of this drama is part and parcel of Washington.
Judging by the polls, there is no doubt that a major portion of the electorate was motivated by dissatisfaction with U.S. efforts in Iraq. According to an ABC News exit poll, six in 10 voters said they disapproved of the war. A CNN exit poll found disapproval from 56 percent. And according to a Newsweek poll, 63 percent of respondents believe we are losing ground in Iraq, a number that has been steadily rising. Iraq clearly motivated Democrats and young voters, who increased their participation by 28 percent and who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.
Meanwhile, corruption and profligate federal spending created disillusionment among conservative voters, whose participation was down 2 percent. Many probably had their own doubts about Iraq as well. All of this is, perhaps, not very strange insofar as the media attention has been unrelentingly negative, in part because sectarian violence continues to escalate, and in part because of media bias against the administration and the war.
While the rituals of American democracy are what they are, the consequences for U.S. policy in Iraq and world leadership in general could be dire if the rush to judgment results in a precipitous and ill-conceived withdrawal. Of course, policy-makers should listen to the voice of the electorate, but they will have to balance that against the U.S. interest globally and long-term success in the war against terrorism.
Democrats have lost no time spelling out what they want. Sen. Carl Levin, incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has already called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops to start as early as four months from now. Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Biden, incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been shopping the idea of partition of Iraq around for a while.
Both parties are vesting a great deal of hope in the work of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, also known as the Baker-Hamilton commission, which is expected to produce a set of policy recommendations in early December. It would be a surprise if the commission could come up with solutions that have not previously been considered, but the desire to get out of Iraq may lead to a willy-nilly embrace of its recommendations.
Two factors need to be remembered. One is that sixth-year midterm elections tend to land a gut-punch on the party that has the White House. Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt (lost 72 seats) to Harry Truman (lost 28) and Dwight Eisenhower (lost 48) have suffered voter wrath in the sixth-year midterm elections. There is clearly a fatigue factor that sets in. Bill Clinton was an exception (gained five). However, the Clinton course correction had been rudely administered by the electorate much earlier, in 1994, in the second year of his first term.
Second, it is important to remember what happened during and after the Vietnam War. It took the New York Times about five years to give up on the war and turn on President Johnson. The United States never lost militarily in Vietnam, but lost the war at home as Congress in the hands of Democrats cut off funding after the peace treaty of 1973 and ordered a halt to all bombing in 1974.
Not only was South Vietnam lost, but a decade of American retrenchment and Communist advances followed, reaching a nadir with the Carter administration's hollow military and the hostage taking in Iran. A similar scenario in the war against terrorism and militant Islam would be no less of a disaster and would vastly embolden the enemies of the United States. Not surprisingly, the elections results are being taken as a sign of victory among leaders of the insurgency in Iraq.
The concern over American withdrawal has been on the minds of foreign observers of the Bush administration's foreign policy for a while, especially its critics. After overreaching in Iraq, so their scenario goes, there would follow a precipitous American withdrawal and a period of isolationism, leaving a power vacuum globally. As Congress and the Bush administration grapple with how to complete the mission in Iraq, both should be keenly aware of the lessons of the past.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times