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Wed., Dec. 13, 2006

Iraq report reaction may cost Bush

In politics, you can win by losing – and lose by winning. The Bush administration is winning the battle to beat back the Baker-Hamilton commission. But what does that bode for Iraq? And for the 2008 elections?

The Baker-Hamilton commission will be remembered as a failed bid by the bipartisan centrist establishment to cook up a new policy for Iraq. But the opening sentence of the report – “The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating” – set a tone of criticism that understandably caused the Bush administration and its allies to bristle.

And so the Baker-Hamiltonians have been derided by the right as “appeasers,” “surrender monkeys” and “betrayers.” For their part, the Democrats have been mostly supportive of the report.

President Bush could have flummoxed the Democrats by embracing Baker-Hamilton. If he had done so, many top Democrats would have been obligated to join him, politically speaking, in the quagmire of Iraq. That’s the point about bipartisan commissions, when they’re successful: Most in Washington feel compelled to dive in, too, lest they be accused of not coming together for the sake of the country.

Yet, Bush & Co. have mostly rejected the report. “Jim Baker can go back to his day job,” the president said dismissively on the day of its release. But in dismissing Baker-Hamilton, W. also let the Democrats off the hook; disconnected from responsibility, they are now free to be critics.

The Democrats don’t seem poised to try to force any change in Iraq; their strategy seems to be: “Bush won on the policy; now let him stew in the juice of that policy. For the next two years.”

Are the Democrats really that Machiavellian? One answer, of course, is that they don’t have a choice – Bush is commander in chief for another two years. Another answer is that, if the 2006 elections were good for them, based on Iraq, they have plenty of reason to think that 2008 will be even better for them if the war drags on.

After all, even the fiercest critics of Baker-Hamilton are hard-pressed to find reason for optimism on the war itself. Mark Steyn, for example, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, compared all the Iraq commissioners to Neville Chamberlain – a harsh charge.

Steyn specifically savaged Baker and Hamilton’s suggestion to talk to Iran and Syria, mocking also their idea of creating an international “support group” for Iraq. In Steyn’s words, “So there you have it: an Iraq ‘Support Group’ that brings together the Arab League, the European Union, Iran, Russia, China and the U.N. And with support like that, who needs lack of support?” Steyn is right: Most of the world looks forward to our losing in Iraq.

But then one is left to wonder: If all those countries and conglomerations are against us, what are our prospects of victory? Without political support, can the United States win militarily? For all the bloodshed in Iraq, do either the Sunnis or the Shiites seem to be running low on suicide-minded jihadists? No wonder that just 9 percent of Americans think that Iraq will end in a “clear-cut victory,” according to a recent AP-Ipsos poll.

In strictly political terms, the successful pushback of the Baker-Hamilton commission means that Iraq is once again Bush’s war. And so, if the president defies the experts and finds a way to win, he will reap the political credit.

But the Democrats are no doubt readying their future talking points: “We tried to cooperate with the president – we even worked with the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission – but Bush wouldn’t listen to any of us. Now, dear voters, please make the same harsh electoral judgment on the Bush Republicans in 2008 that you did in 2006.” So Bush has won the policy now, but he could lose the politics yet again in two years. And oh, by the way, things could get even uglier in Iraq.

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