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The Stab That Failed By: Noemie Emery
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Eagerly anticipating the defeat in Iraq to which they are so much attached, some on the left have also been preparing for another contingency: the assault that they think they see coming, a drive to pin the whole wretched failure on them. Apparently, this will be "stab in the back" redux, a new iteration of the theme deployed so successfully in interwar Germany by a resourceful, ambitious Austrian corporal, who managed to propel his rise to power with the claim that World War I would have been won by his country, if not for sinister forces at home. Then, it was subversion by Jews and other disloyal elements. This time, in the left's imagining, the blame will fall on the press and the Democrats who, by pulling the plug at just the wrong moment, caused the loss of Iraq. "Nobody I know in a rational condition believes that the United States is going to have any kind of a military victory," Mark Shields said in August. "So the idea is going to be, 'We were on the cusp of victory and the rug was pulled out from under us by these willy-nilly, weak-kneed, nervous Nellies back home.'?"

The problem with this is (1) that we may really win, and have no failure to blame upon anyone, and (2) that the nervous Nellies really did try to keep us from winning, indeed fought fang and claw to derail our best efforts. If they had had their way, Iraq would still be the quagmire they are so fond of invoking, and the United States--or George W. Bush, which may be the more relevant factor--would have incurred a definitive and, at least in his case, legacy-blasting defeat. It is unfair of course to call this a stab in the back, as the Democrats have been engagingly open about their intentions. In the course of the past year, they have gone from attacking a plan that had not been effective to attacking one that hadn't been tried yet, to attacking one that exceeded all expectations, while in the process ignoring reality, slandering a commanding general, and denying American forces in battle due credit for what they had done. If not backstabbing as such (see above), it is diverting enough a spectacle to merit a replay. Let us look back at this last year of battle and see how the story played out.

When our tale opens, it is the last month of 2006, Democrats have just scored a blowout in Congress, Iraq is in shambles, and the country is calling for Bush to change course. He does. But he changes course in the other direction, radically revising his Iraq strategy, adopting aggressive new rules of engagement, and sending in 30,000 more troops. Even before the plan was announced to the public on January 10, 2007, Democrats launched their assault. Senator Christopher Dodd declared the plan useless: "A 'surge' of American troops will do nothing." Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrats in the new Congress, released an open letter to Bush on January 5, decrying his redoubled effort as futile: "Surging forces is a strategy that you have already tried, and that has already failed." The surge was "a sad, ominous echo of something we've lived through in this country," according to Illinois senator Richard Durbin. "I'm confident it will not work," said John Kerry at a Senate hearing, a sentiment echoed by Barack Obama. "Verdict first, trial afterwards," said the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, unaware of her future as a role model for America's congressional Democrats. And then it really got strange.

Senate Democrats joined the Republicans in late January in unanimously confirming the appointment of General David Petraeus, a counterinsurgency expert and coauthor of the new surge proposal, sending him off with godspeed and good wishes to the front. Then they began to try to kneecap his efforts, seeking to deny him troops and/or money in an ongoing series of votes of no confidence, coupled with predictions that he would not succeed. Lest anyone at home or abroad not get their message, they rapidly passed two resolutions declaring their profound lack of faith in his mission. One, from Carl Levin on February 5, declared the Senate's disagreement with the "plan to augment our forces"; the other, from Harry Reid two weeks later, declared it the sense of Congress that "Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq."

Afraid of moving directly to defund the armed forces, Democrats decided on a series of steps that would have the same effect without saying so, i.e., putting so many restrictions and regulations on troop deployments that the number available would in effect be greatly reduced. These would be sponsored by veterans (James Webb and John Murtha), and the stated goal would be to help the armed forces. The real goal, however, was to strangle the surge in its crib. "Top House Democrats, working in concert with antiwar groups, have decided against using congressional power to force a quick end to U.S. involvement .??.??. and instead will pursue a slow-bleed strategy designed to gradually limit the administration's options," Politico reported on February 13, adding that the "goal is to limit or sharply reduce the number of U.S. troops available for the Iraq conflict, rather than to openly cut off funding for the war itself."

At the beginning, it had been made abundantly clear that the surge would take place in stages, that it would build gradually over a three- to five-month period, and would not begin to take full effect until June. This did not stop Reid from declaring in April that the surge had been tried, and had failed. "I believe myself that the secretary of state, the secretary of defense--and you have to make your own decision as to what the president knows--know that this war is lost and that the surge is not accomplishing anything," he said April 19.

Others piled on. "The surge was supposed to bring stability. .??.??. It hasn't and it won't," Ted Kennedy said on May 1. "The evidence is clear it is not happening and it will not happen," Dodd said May 15 of a potential American victory. Durbin said the day after: "This Senate knows that the administration's policy in Iraq has failed." Senator Joseph Biden agreed. "The surge has not worked and will not work," he said on June 1. And in a joint letter to the president on June 13, Reid and Pelosi said, "As many had foreseen, the escalation has failed to produce the intended results."

Having ordered Petraeus to make a progress report in September, the plan had been to wait until then--and the bad news they seemed sure would be coming--to deliver the coup de grâce. In July, however, the congressional Democrats decided September wouldn't come fast enough. As Harry Reid put it on July 9, "Democrats and military experts and the American people know the president's current strategy is not working and we cannot wait until September to act." As Dianne Feinstein put it, "Today, a majority of the Senate sees that the surge is not working. .??.??. Do we change course now or do we wait until September???.??.??. I believe the answer is clear." James Webb, sponsoring an amendment that would cripple the surge, made it clear that whatever Petraeus said wouldn't matter to him. "I don't care what the report says next week. I don't care what the report says in September."

At the end of July, as Congress left town for its midsummer recess, the Democrats took their first blow. An op-ed in the New York Times by Kenneth Pollack and Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution--both men who initially supported the war but had become harsh critics--said they had been to Iraq and seen a substantial change in the climate, and believed for the first time there was hope. (The headline on their piece was even more upbeat: "A War We Just Might Win.") Worse still, some Democrats who went to Iraq over the recess came back and said they had seen signs of progress themselves. While a few Democrats said that what they had seen made them less likely to call for retreat and more likely to give the troops time to accomplish their mission, most proved themselves more than up to the job of putting bad spin on good news.

"Democrats have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front," the Washington Post reported on August 22, 2007, "increasingly focusing their criticisms on what those military gains have not achieved." First on the list of things not accomplished was the creation of a strong central government. A pattern was emerging in which goalposts were moved steadily backward with each new accomplishment. First, military success was pronounced unattainable; when it occurred it was called insufficient. When once-hostile Sunni sheikhs begged to join the Shia-led police and armed forces, this too was called meaningless, as long as the "leaders" in Baghdad kept squabbling. Taking their lead from the media, where good news was no news and setbacks always resulted in large, screaming headlines, the war critics pronounced anything that was accomplished unimportant the moment it happened.

Fearful that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker might report too much progress in their much-anticipated testimony to Congress in September, Democrats launched a preemptive assault on the duo. "Leading Democrats .??.??. preemptively assailed the expected findings on Iraq due this week from Gen. David H. Petraeus as 'dead, flat wrong' and said President Bush's likely call for continued patience in the war would simply extend an 'unconscionable' and 'completely unacceptable' policy," reported the International Herald Tribune on September 9, two days before the hearing was scheduled. "The pointed comments from the Democrats .??.??. seemed designed to undercut the impact of the much-awaited reports." Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts referred to the general's testimony as a "Petraeus village .??.??. a façade to hide from view the continuing failure of the Bush administration's strategy." Rahm Emanuel said, "We don't need a report that wins the Nobel Prize for creative statistics, or the Pulitzer for fiction." The testimony required the "willing suspension of disbelief," said Hillary Clinton (a past master at the skill, as she had suspended it often enough in regard to her husband). "By carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that the violence in Iraq is decreasing, and the surge is working," said Dick Durbin. In an unintentional echo of the New York Times's famous "fake but accurate" defense of Dan Rather's fictional documents about President Bush's presumed derelictions of duty in the Texas Air National Guard, Durbin said: "Even if the figures are right, the conclusion is wrong." In less than a year, the Democrats had gone from demanding a change in a policy that was failing, to demanding a change in a policy that hadn't been tried yet, to demanding a change in a policy that at the very least had forestalled disaster and was proving to have some success.

October 2006 was the worst month in Iraq since the war started, with violence spiking all over the country, and death numbers reaching new highs. In November 2006, the Democrats had their best midterm election in 20 years, winning back both the House and the Senate and gaining a large lead in the generic ballot heading into the election of 2008. The two incidents were not unrelated, and, as a result, the party laid down a huge bet on Iraq the Debacle, calculating that the disaster would drive swing voters into their column. "Senator Schumer has shown me numbers that are compelling and astounding," a gleeful Harry Reid said on April 12, 2007, to reporters. "We are going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war." A poll taken by Fox News in September showed that 19 percent of Democrats thought it would be good for the world if the United States lost in Iraq, and another 20 percent weren't sure either way. The depth of the left's investment in an Iraq defeat came out during the last week in July, when, hearing from General Jack Keane that the surge might be working, Representative Nancy Boyda was so shaken she fled a congressional hearing. "There was only so much that you could take until we in fact had to leave the room for a while," she explained. "Democrats like Boyda would like to preserve in amber the state of public opinion that prevailed during the 2006 election and the first half of this year," noted Michael Barone. "The more cynical among them want to make political gain from that; the less cynical want to end a conflict that is taking American lives as fast as they can." Democrats claim that their motives are pure, but it is a strange form of patriotic dissent that attacks a plan as having failed before it has started, anoints a commander, attacks him, and then tries to sandbag his efforts; calls a plan a failure in April when it has been explained many times that it will be June before it can be implemented, and then, when qualified observers see some signs of progress, either collapses in an attack of the vapors or erupts in howls of unrelieved rage.

Since then, the Democrats have moved on to controlling nondamage; i.e., putting the worst face on good news. First, they said military success was impossible; then they said only political success was important; when political success began to happen at the local and provincial levels, they said it was the wrong kind or had come about for all the wrong reasons. When Sunni tribes in Anbar Province turned on al Qaeda and allied themselves with American forces, Chuck Schumer was there to explain it away. "Let me be clear: the violence in Anbar has gone down despite the surge, not because of the surge," Schumer said in early September. "The lack of protection for these tribes from al Qaeda made it clear to these tribes, 'we have to fight al Qaeda ourselves.' It wasn't that the surge brought peace here." Memo to Schumer: (1) Before they turned, the Sunnis of Anbar were fighting with al Qaeda against us, not seeking protection from us; (2) Sunnis drove al Qaeda from Anbar in collaboration with American forces; (3) while the Sunnis had been becoming displeased with al Qaeda for some time, it was only when surge-added security made it possible for them to defect without being murdered that they began to come over in droves. Likewise, when casualty rates started falling off drastically among Iraqi citizens, David Obey rose to the occasion, telling a bemused audience at the National Press Club that this was because there was no one left in Iraq to be killed by insurgents.

Earlier this month, when General Petraeus reported that al Qaeda had been cleared out of Baghdad, and when American and Iraqi forces held a unity march in Ramadi (which you surely saw reported in your daily newspapers and newscasts, didn't you?), the Gang That Couldn't Stab Straight announced they would make their 41st effort to force a change of course in the war. Against all the evidence, Reid and Pelosi announced that things in Iraq were now worse than ever. (Translation: We owe it to our base to get this thing throttled, before things improve even more.) "It's not getting better, it's getting worse," Reid intoned solemnly. Other Democrats persisted in claiming against all evidence that Americans were "refereeing a civil war" and continued to demand a "change" in a strategy that exceeded all expectations. They talked as they had for nearly a year of "peeling off" disaffected Republicans who, if they had not peeled off earlier when things really were dire, were surely not peeling off now.

For the first time, even reporters were starting to -giggle. Doubtless this has to do with new polling data, which show views on the war ticking upward from the disastrous nadir of early this year. Though the successes have been underreported, a Pew Research Poll found that 44 percent of Americans think the war is going "very" or "fairly" well, while a CBS poll found the number of Democrats thinking the war was going "very badly" had fallen 12 points (to 45 percent) over three months. According to Charles Franklin, a nonpartisan pollster, "Republicans (including the president) have made real progress in swaying opinion to their side, while 10 months of Democratic efforts have failed to persuade citizens that the war continues to be a disaster. The war of partisan persuasion has tilted towards Republicans and away from the Democrats, at least in this particular aspect," he said on his blog.

Denying reality is seldom sound politics. President Bush is still suffering from the aftereffects of the reality gap of 2006, when he insisted, in the face of mounds of contrary evidence, that things were improving in Iraq when it was clear they were not. The Democrats are now doing the same thing in reverse, closing their minds to all news that is not catastrophic, or, on the rare occasions they admit to a small sign of progress, denying all credit to our strategy, to our leaders, or, worst of all, to our troops. Perhaps what the Democrats really want is for the surge to succeed, but to appear to be failing, at least until the 2008 elections are over. But this seems a fairly hard thing to explain to the public.

As they took control of Congress at the start of 2007, the Democrats vowed this would be a year of historic importance, and it seems they were prescient: Seldom before in the annals of governance have so many politicians fought so long and so hard to completely screw up a winning strategy being waged on their country's behalf. Some cruelly define this as treacherous conduct, but this is imprecise and unkind. They tried, it is true, to do serious damage, but were compromised in the event by their chronic incompetence, as well as by being too above-board and open to try to do things on the sly. A stab in the back as a concept was wholly beyond their capacities. This was not a stab in the back that works via guile and subterfuge. It was 41 different stabs in the front, that always fell far short of serious damage, unless you count the damage they did to their own reputations (the approval ratings for Congress are now in the twenties). It was the Stab in the Front, the Surge-against-the-Surge, the Pickett's Charge of the Great War on Terror. It was a year to remember, that will live in the annals of fecklessness. It was historical. It was hysterical. It was the Stab that Failed.




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