Analysis: Iraq Report May Shift Climate

The Associated Press
Monday, August 20, 2007; 9:12 PM

WASHINGTON -- Democrats are warily anticipating a September report on the Iraq war, realizing that opponents will use any upbeat assessment to portray them as defeatists just as glimmers of hope appear.

While many of their party colleagues find the notion fanciful, they acknowledge that top Republicans hope the report will show just enough progress in Iraq to persuade millions of Americans to be patient about troop withdrawals and less critical of how the war is being run.

Democratic candidates for president and Congress, the GOP argument goes, would then be stuck with their Iraq-is-lost stance, appearing irresolute and beholden to liberal activists just as things are looking better.

Many Democratic strategists consider it highly unlikely that a Bush administration report could convince voters the war is improving in a meaningful way. Polling data suggest most Americans are unlikely to change their views about the war based on a new report from the administration.

Still, some Democrats worry that credible reports of even slight improvements in the military situation in Iraq could hurt their party's momentum, built largely on public disenchantment with President Bush and his handling of the war. The administration is writing the September update while consulting with Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker. Both men will testify before Congress.

In late July, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said an upbeat assessment from Petraeus would carry significant weight with his party's most conservative members. They would "want to stay the course, and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us," Clyburn told The Washington Post.

Republicans pounced on the remark, claiming Democrats see any progress in Iraq as a political setback. They also trumpeted a July 30 op-ed article in the New York Times by two Brookings Institution military scholars just back from Iraq.

"We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms," wrote Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. "We were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily 'victory' but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with."

Some Democratic lawmakers have drawn similar conclusions, putting new strains on party solidarity. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., recently returned from Iraq and said he no longer supports a hard deadline for troop withdrawals.

"I have come to believe that calls for premature withdrawal may make it more difficult for Iraqis to solve their problems," Baird told The Columbian newspaper. The Democratic Party leadership "may be in a different place than I am right now," he said.

Bush's allies hope more good news will come from next month's administration report to Congress, even though no one expects a thoroughly optimistic assessment. U.S. military leaders have said some Iraqi regions _ such as the area around Mosul in the north and Al Anbar province in the west _ may be stable enough to let U.S. troops redeploy elsewhere.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, responding in writing to a reporter's question, said: "Democratic leaders made a political calculation in January and it is proving to be dead wrong."

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