When the news from abroad is good, what is the political opposition to do? Should Democrats let President Bush crow about favorable developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon and Iraq? Should they crow with him? And how should Democrats deal with Bush's appropriation of what Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) calls "Wilsonian" and "Kennedyesque" rhetoric promoting the spread of democracy? If Bush pushes policies that are both "Democratic with a large D and a small d," Lieberman asks, shouldn't Democrats encourage him?
With the midterm elections still a long way off and with optimism currently a plausible disposition toward developments in the Middle East, Democrats are hanging back and taking stock.
Even strong opponents of the Iraq war are displaying a wary willingness to imagine that events may be taking a turn for the better. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who remains deeply skeptical of Bush's unilateral approach to the war, describes himself as "cautiously optimistic" about Middle East developments, including the Iraqi elections and the peaceful anti-Syrian rebellion in Lebanon. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who shared Levin's skepticism about the war, says "an honest appraisal would tell us that the situation in Iraq is far from stable." But he adds: "I have to concede that there are positive developments in the Middle East. . . . I have to applaud them."
Neither Levin nor Durbin nor most other opponents of the war have changed their minds about their votes against authorizing force in Iraq. Levin still worries "whether we've unleashed some forces in Iraq" that could prove inimical to American security. Both note that Bush's original reason for going to war -- weapons of mass destruction -- fell apart, and new claims that the war was really about spreading democracy have the feel of an after-the-fact rationale. And both still believe that the United States is in a worse position than it had to be because of poor planning for the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall and the president's unwillingness to gather more allies.
Nonetheless, Democrats -- like Bush's critics among America's allies abroad -- are trying to make the best of policy decisions that cannot be taken back. "It's not now an issue," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said of the Iraq war. "It's a fact on the ground." Beneath the surface, Democrats are no more united on the war than before the election. Bush critics such as Frank say the administration still needs to answer for the continuing violence in Iraq.
Durbin, for now, prefers to emphasize the positive, pointing to Bush's willingness during his recent European trip to reach out to allies. Referring to Bush's new approach and to positive signs for democracy in the Middle East, Durbin says Democrats "need to be supportive of this momentum for positive change."
Lieberman, who remains a strong supporter of the war, believes the Democrats' task is to push Bush to follow through on his pro-democracy rhetoric. Yesterday, Lieberman and others introduced the Advance Democracy Act, which would establish offices in the State Department and incentives for diplomats to make promotion of democracy a priority.
The turn in the Iraq debate is significant but fragile. Democratic criticism of Bush has abated because, says Kurt Campbell, a defense official in the Clinton administration, "Democrats must be rooting for victory in Iraq." But Campbell said Democrats remain wary of many aspects of administration policy, including the "shocking and appalling" way the administration has used National Guard and reserve forces.
The political truce over the war will hold as long as events justify it. But it is a frail truce that very much depends, as Frank would put it, on "facts on the ground."