By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
What could prove to be the most important factor in the 2006 elections is overlooked because it is unseen: The Republicans cannot try to curry favor with a "silent majority" that favors the Iraq war because a majority of Americans, both vocal and quiet, have come to see the war as a mistake.
President Bush's defenders have cast opponents of the war as weak on terrorism. Yesterday, Vice President Cheney accused Democrats of "resignation and defeatism." But the charges have not taken hold, because most Americans don't agree with the premise linking the war on terror with the war in Iraq.
And blame for the failures in Iraq has fallen not on some liberal coterie supposedly holding our generals back but on the choices of civilians in a conservative administration. Those civilians, and their allies outside the administration, find themselves under increasing fire from leaders of the military and the intelligence services for bad planning, flawed analysis and unrealistic expectations.
Moreover, the tone of the opposition to this war is quite different from the tenor of some sections of the movement against the Vietnam War. Reaction to "hippie protesters," as the phrase went, allowed President Richard Nixon to pit a hardworking, patriotic "silent majority" -- it was one of the most politically potent phrases of his presidency -- against the privileged, the young and the media, whom his vice president Spiro Agnew memorably characterized as "effete snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativism."
As the historian and Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose noted, tiny minorities -- "they numbered less than 1 percent of the demonstrators," he wrote of a 1969 rally -- "waved Viet Cong flags . . . and even burned American flags" and served as "magnets to the television cameras." They were used to exemplify an entire movement.
By contrast, critics of the Iraq war, deeply influenced by the post-Sept. 11 climate of national solidarity, have been resolutely patriotic and pro-military. They have often chastised the administration for offering American troops too little in the way of body armor and armored vehicles, and for shortchanging veterans.
Among the most visible critics of the administration's approach have been generals, vets, parents with sons and daughters in the military, and foreign policy realists who think of themselves as moderate or even conservative opponents of what they see as the administration's radical direction.
That is why news over the weekend of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq is especially troublesome for Republican electoral chances. By finding that the war in Iraq has encouraged global terrorism and spawned a new generation of Islamic radicals, the report by 16 government intelligence services undercuts the administration's central argument that the Iraq war has made the United States safer.
Nor is there any way to dismiss the assessment as partisan, left-wing or unpatriotic. That high-level government officials have offered their own criticisms of the war's impact makes it difficult for Republicans to force the argument into a classic "he said-she said" framework in which facts can be set aside and the claims of critics dismissed as political.
It is no wonder that the administration immediately insisted that news reports were "not representative of the complete document," in the words of a White House spokesman. The phrase was a classic instance of the non-denial denial, a defensive response from an administration that has tried, with some success, to remain on offense on the terrorism issue all month.
The conventional, and accurate, view of this fall's elections is that Iraq is a Democratic issue and the broader war on terrorism is a Republican issue. Accordingly, Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid were understandably eager to point to the report as a commentary on the president's "repeated missteps in Iraq and his stubborn refusal to change course," as Reid put it Sunday.
But beneath the conventional account is a more revealing truth: that over the past four years, the burden of proof on the Iraq war has been turned on its head.
During the 2002 election campaign -- before the war had actually begun -- Democratic candidates all over the country fled the Iraq debate and feared raising any questions about Bush's national security choices. In 2006 it's the administration trying to keep Iraq out of the campaign and to move the public conversation to anything else as an alternative to an accounting for its war decisions that so many middle-of-the-road Americans now regret. There is no silent majority to bail the president out.