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The Silenced Majority

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

We are condemned, the smart guys tell us, to stay in Iraq. None of the three leading Democratic presidential candidates will pledge to remove all U.S. forces by 2013. In the think-tankocracy of Washington, defense intellectuals of both parties argue that pulling up stakes is not an option.

"Some of the people mentioned as possible defense secretaries under a Democratic White House," The Post's Thomas E. Ricks reported last month, "offer a vision of a U.S. presence in Iraq that does not differ markedly from that of the Bush administration." Even the fantastical idea floated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- that U.S. forces should settle into a permanent presence in Iraq as they have in South Korea -- seems to have won at least tacit acceptance among many defense deep thinkers.

Everyone's on board except the American people, but what do they matter?

When the Pew Research Center polled Americans in September, it found 54 percent support for bringing U.S. forces home immediately or over the next two years. Thirteen percent said we should keep troops in Iraq but set a timetable for withdrawal, while 25 percent favored keeping troops there and not setting a timetable. Pew didn't ask if we should station forces there for half a century, as we have in Korea. Maybe the pollsters' lawyers told them they might be held liable if they asked a question that induced cardiac arrest.

In the past several years there's been great concern about the erosion of individual rights as a consequence of the Bush administration's "war on terror" and war in Iraq. I share this concern. But the administration's critics, myself included, have been remiss in noting a development even more corrosive to American democracy -- the erosion of majority rule.

A fundamental premise of democracy is that elections matter. That belief is being tested today as it seldom has before. In 2006, the Republicans were swept from power in Congress because the American electorate had had it with the war and with Congress's unquestioning acquiescence to President Bush's blind and obdurate faith in the eventual success of the American mission. In responding to the election by sending more troops to Iraq and keeping these troops there until the limits of our manpower compel their return next year, Bush merely doubled down on his unwinnable bet on his unwinnable war.

Congressional Democrats have honorably tried and failed to scale back the war; the Senate's requirement of a 60-vote supermajority to alter policy requires supermajority support from the public for an altered Senate. And looking at the tea leaves for 2008, a heavily Democratic Senate and a Democratic president may well be swept into power.

They won't be, however, if Democratic voters have despaired of the efficacy of elections. For millions of Democrats, the contested verdict of 2000 and the overturned verdict of 2006 -- war is repudiated, war is escalated -- were bad enough. The killer for Democratic prospects would be if millions of Democrats believed that a President Clinton, or Obama, or Edwards, would keep a significant number of troops in Iraq, too.

On this particular, Democratic primary voters do have some choices.

Many of Hillary Clinton's foreign and military policy advisers, such as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, supported the war at first, then criticized its conduct, then supported the surge. On the war, at least, they could as easily be providing advice to John McCain. The same cannot be said of the majority of foreign and military policy mavens aligned with her two chief rivals.

Recently, Clinton herself resurrected old doubts about her foreign policy judgment that she had managed to tamp down over the past half-year by favoring a timeline for the withdrawal of most U.S. forces. In voting for the Lieberman-Kyl legislation that deemed Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, she opened the door for Bush and Vice President Cheney to charge into Iran, or its airspace, with what they would claim to be congressional permission.

Clinton insists that the resolution provides no such permission, but she should know by now that this administration will take an errant cough as permission. These are, after all, the same folks who construed the half-million-vote deficit of the 2000 election as a mandate.

If Democrats are to win in 2008, it will be because they represent a decisive break, not a partially veiled continuity, with George Bush's policies, and with his war policies most of all. The Democratic candidates, Clinton especially, need to assure voters that their voice matters more than those of the Beltway theorists who supported the war at the outset and still can't contemplate ending the occupation. They need to assure voters, in short, that they take democracy in America seriously.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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