Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Battlefield report

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

Less than three years after the start of the Iraq war, Iraqis went to the polls Thursday to elect a parliament. For the third time this year, Saddam Hussein's former subjects overcame threats of violence to shape their future with the might of the purple finger. Iraqi turnout is the envy of U.S. good-government types. Surely the election is one more sign that progress is being made there and that the Iraq war is, well, winnable.

Clearly, the Iraqis aren't as gloomy as America's "Defeatocrats," to use columnist Mark Steyn's apt phrase. Far from it. A recent ABC News-Time poll found that 70 percent of Iraqis rate their own economic situation positively. Sixty percent feel safe in their own neighborhoods, up from 40 percent in June 2004. And 61 percent say local security is good, 12 points higher than what ABC News found in February 2004. Support for democratic structures is up, while support for an Islamic state is down.

True, the new poll isn't a portrait of unalloyed joy. Fifty-two percent of Iraqis say things aren't going well in their nation as a whole. Two-thirds oppose the presence of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. But 69 percent of Iraqis expect improvement in Iraq during the next year, and Iraqis take a nuanced approach to the presence of coalition troops. Although 45 percent think those troops should leave now, 52 percent think they should wait until security is restored, the Iraqi security forces can operate independently or even longer.

In short, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, John Murtha and the Defeatocrats aren't winning the "pull-out-now" debate in Iraq, much less the United States.

Which brings us to recent developments in the other war: the war about the Iraq war here at home.

Belatedly, Bush realized he was in this kind of war and that he was losing it. And that losing the war about the war would contribute more to losing the actual war than anything that might happen in Iraq.

The upshot: Starting on Veterans Day, Bush began a fall campaign in this war of words. A month later, he's made some smart gains, and now his critics are on the defensive.

The two prongs have a common theme: getting serious about the Iraq war.

Yes, the White House started taking the "Bush lied" critics seriously, answering their charges, condemning their "irresponsible" revisionism of the Iraq war's history. He spotlighted the hypocrisy of some such as John Kerry and Jay Rockefeller and held others (Murtha, Pelosi, Dean) responsible for their views. No more believing the "Bush lied" slander was beneath White House notice. No more allowing ankle-biters to kvetch without consequence.

Further, the White House started treating the larger public seriously, providing a candid, detailed and sustained accounting of the war effort. In four speeches, Bush discussed the training of Iraqi forces, Iraq's economic reconstruction, our efforts to build a lasting democracy in the heart of the Middle East and, again, in Wednesday's speech, and why we went to Iraq and can't pull out before meeting our goals.

Bush has provided specifics in area after area and acknowledged past mistakes (training of Iraqi security forces). He has set out future challenges (the continuation of violence and the formation of an Iraqi government after today's election) and pointed up manifest problems (the discovery of Iraqi prisons where Sunnis appear to have been beaten and tortured). In Philadelphia, he answered audience questions ("I would like to know why you . . . invoke 9/11 as justification for the invasion of Iraq -- when no respected journalists or other Middle Eastern experts confirm that such a link existed?") with depth, command and a winning relish. He should keep this up.

Yes, Bush has said much of this before, but a once-and-done approach isn't sufficient. Bush's critics don't take a once-and-done approach. Even if there were near universal agreement on Iraq, something as large and difficult and important as the Iraq war requires a constant engagement of the public. No other agenda item -- not Social Security reform, not taxes -- deserves greater sustained attention.

A month later, Bush's sustained offensive is paying off. His approval ratings are heading up. So is support for his conduct of the Iraq war, according to the most recent USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll.

And this was before Thurday's elections across Iraq.

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