The Iraq Syndrome

By Ari Melber

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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On Sunday, the Baghdad hotel housing many of the top occupation officials was pummeled by rockets, and gunmen assassinated one of the capital’s three deputy mayors. The next day, suicide bombers attacked the Red Cross headquarters and four Baghdad police stations, killing at least 34 and wounding more than 200.

The violence is designed to grind down American resolve to finish operations in Iraq, and the attacks seem to be hitting their mark in Congress.

Already, Iraq Syndrome is spreading in the Democratic Party. Unlike the infamous Vietnam Syndrome — which scorned military intervention as a reaction to American failure — today’s Iraq Syndrome predicts American failure.

A growing group of Democrats views the terrorism and attacks in Iraq as proof that the United States cannot prevail in reconstructing the nation. Their goal is to shorten the mission rather than accomplish it. You can spot people who suffer from the syndrome because they talk about exit strategy instead of victory.

They also make a lot of comparisons to the Vietnam War. While Congress debated the $87 billion supplemental, some equated funding postwar operations in Iraq to prolonging the actual war in Vietnam. Democrat Bob Filner recently stood on the House floor and explained: “We were in a quagmire then. We are in an ‘Iraqmire’ now.”

It’s not just rhetoric — most House Democrats voted against the $87 billion supplemental appropriations bill this month. Many emphasize that they supported funding for the troops, but they voted to take a stand against President Bush’s foreign policy execution and obstinate ploys to ram the request through Congress.

The White House refused to even discuss dividing the military and reconstruction money, reducing the deficit or repealing any of the tax cuts to pay for operations. Yet it is the Democrats who have an uphill battle against public opinion, where there is a growing perception that they care more about withdrawal than winning.

Roughly two out of every three Americans want our troops to stay in Iraq until a stable government is formed, according to a September poll by the well-respected Pew Research Center. Yet among self-identifying Democrats, support for bringing the troops home immediately was at 44%. This group opposed the war, and now it reflexively opposes the postwar. This tendency makes for bad policy and politics.

Withdrawal is a binary debate, one which the president usually wins. And when Congress does succeed in making a president remove troops, the results can backfire. The classic example is Congress forcing President Reagan to pull out of Lebanon after the 1983 Marine barrack bombing, which undercut the president’s authority and showed weakness to enemies in the region.

The politics of withdrawal are even worse. While the Iraq Syndrome has infected the Democratic base, most of the public displays a healthy resistance. People don’t want to hear unrealistic plans to bring everyone home any more than they want to hear the Bush administration’s spin about progress.

In fact, the deluge of war spin has made people hungry for clear facts, plans and goals for Iraq. Democrats should outline specific priorities that can be measured against the administration’s performance.

Take, for example, civilian administrator Paul Bremer’s July 23 plan for Iraqis to form a constitutional commission in the “short term,” draft election laws in the “medium term” and convene a constitutional referendum and local, regional and national elections in the “longer term.” Is that a realistic sequence? When will the absence of solid election laws be considered a failure? Do Democrats endorse this rapid democratization?

Addressing these questions would be more productive for American foreign policy debate — and credible for domestic political goals — than the present Democratic approach of complaining about the Bush administration’s hardball tactics on Capitol Hill, or talking about bringing the troops home. As long as Democrats prove that they are committed to succeeding in Iraq, they can effectively present reliable alternatives.

To that end, it may be time for the opposition to state that constitutional democracy is unlikely in Iraq, and that a legitimate and more realistic goal would be a stable, nonviolent government that respects human rights. Neoconservatism is nothing if not ambitious, but Americans — just like Iraqis — prefer small, tangible results to grand, broken promises. The leader who defines the minimum requirements for success in Iraq might just cure the Iraq Syndrome by uniting Americans around the priorities for victory and departure.

Ari Melber served as a Democratic foreign policy aide in the Senate.

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