Return to story
WASHINGTON--In Iraq, sadly,
But Bush is talking about 21,500, and military officials say that number can't be sustained for more than six months or a year. The United States can't maintain a long-term escalation, which is one reason Bush's plan will almost certainly fail.
But, if the surge makes little difference in Iraq, it could make a profound difference in the United States, shaping the way Americans see the war for years to come. Even as Bush makes
The last time the United States endured such a debate, over Vietnam, the hawks more than held their own. One
Now, because of the surge, that's going to be very hard to say about Iraq. The blame game has already been different this time around because conservatives are in charge. During Vietnam, when the White House was occupied by liberals (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) and moderates (Richard Nixon), hawks could carp about a lack of presidential will.
George W. Bush, by contrast, has always been the right's guy, and thus harder to tag as a weak-kneed dove.
Nonetheless, for 3 years, Iraq hawks have had an alibi: The United States didn't have enough troops. From the editors of The Weekly Standard and National Review to John McCain, conservatives have demanded that Donald Rumsfeld be sidelined and
Now, they're finally getting their wish: Rumsfeld is gone, and his Iraq policy is about to follow. Last month, Keane and Kagan wrote: "The United States faces a dire situation in Iraq because of a history of half-measures." How will they explain Iraq's "dire situation" a year from now, after the Bush administration has abandoned half-measures and embraces the all-out effort that they demand?
That question must keep McCain's advisers up at night. In Vietnam, the right's advice was never followed and, thus, never came up for a vote. When Reagan called Vietnam a "noble cause" in 1980, he was stoking a myth of national innocence and invincibility for which beleaguered Americans yearned. But he could do so precisely because his preferred policies on Vietnam had never been tried.
In 2008, by contrast, Iraq won't be a symbolic issue. Americans will still be dying, and the catastrophe will still be deepening, largely because of policies clearly identified with the likely Republican presidential nominee. McCain can claim that, by sending
But that will look like quibbling. Already, presidential hopeful John Edwards has dubbed Bush's surge
So far, it's working. According to a December Washington Post poll, support for McCain has fallen 15 points among independents--once his political base--since March 2006. And, in several surveys, his lead in a hypothetical face-off against Hillary Clinton, which once regularly topped 10 points, has dwindled to nothing.
That has a lot to do with his stance
Give McCain his due: He's acting from conviction. He's doing exactly what pundits always demand of politicians--ignoring the consultants, ignoring the polls, and doing what he thinks is right. At this point, McCain's position probably hurts him even in the Republican primary. It's one of the more remarkable episodes in recent political memory.
But, by following his gut, McCain may send U.S. politics in exactly the direction he hopes it does not go. If Iraq is the issue in 2008 and Democrats win, it will dramatically alter the politics of foreign policy. Ever since Vietnam, it has been conventional wisdom that, in presidential elections, doves lose and hawks win. If Iraq sinks McCain's candidacy for president, that will go out the window. More dovish politicians will start looking politically viable and more hawkish ones won't.
In his 2000 campaign book, "A Charge to Keep," George W. Bush
PETER BEINART is editor at large