Iraq strategy

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(HOST) Given the rapidly escalating conflict in the Middle East, commentator Olin Robison has been thinking a lot about what it might take to devise a successful exit strategy from the war in Iraq – and how such an effort could factor into coming elections.

(ROBISON) There is certainly nothing new in politicians using fear as a campaign tool. It has been going on for generations. The usual strategy is to tell the voters that this is a dangerous world and that I am the more trustworthy candidate in dealing with the current danger than my opponent is.

Recent research has shown that, in democracies, voters tend more often than not in such circumstances to turn to the more politically conservative choice than a choice that is perceived to be more liberal if they, the voters, perceive there to be a serious external threat.

It is arguable that this is what has happened in the United States over the last five to six years. It is also arguable that this administration has been especially adept at painting any criticism of the President’s policies as being unpatriotic.

President Bush’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove, recently addressed the Republican National Committee saying, among other things, that President Bush clearly understands that we are at war with an implacable enemy and that we must stay the course with him and his supporters even as the Democrats, according to Rove, want to “cut and run” in Iraq. This has been a remarkably successful strategy on the part of the Bush administration. It builds on popular fear and it works.

It builds on the rather hackneyed but nonetheless durable image of Democrats as being weak on defense issues. It associates the “cut and run” strategy in Iraq with weakness and irresolution.

Now, we are yet to see whether Republicans far and wide will stick to this message during the approaching off-year elections next November and in the 2008 presidential campaign as well. I am betting not.

Politicians running for congressional seats in 2006 are increasingly looking for ways to distance themselves from the White House.

We can look for some some creative wordplay in the months immediately ahead. Already we are hearing suggestions that “troop redeployment” should be an option.

Even some Republicans who have stood foursquare with the President are now caught in a bind. Those who not only support the war effort but also publicly defend it are what the Financial Times of London calls a “dwindling band.” On the other hand, the White House has been so effective in branding any opposition to the Iraq war as “unpatriotic” that some of the President’s own party are now in a most uncomfortable position. Such candidates must take great care lest they appear to support not only the troops but also how the war has been waged, which is more and more at odds with majority public sentiment.

“Cutting and running” is, of course, highly derogatory, and yet, in due course, that is highly likely to become US policy – although by some other name to be sure.

It was none other than Vermont’s late Senator George Aiken who is reputed to have advised the late President Johnson, who faced a similar problem in Vietnam, to “declare victory and bring the troops home” – which is essentially what happened.

And it will probably happen again.

Public support for battlefield casualties can be sustained only as long as there is widespread belief in the cause and also in the leadership. Right now, both are waning in the United States.

So, dear friends, look for serious policy shifts in the days ahead – and especially between November, 2006 and November 2008.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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