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Iraq and the Surging Election Cycle

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
July 9, 2007

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The White House quickly quashed (AP) a New York Times report citing increasing internal debates over a troop drawdown in Iraq. But at a time of some high-profile Republican challenges to Iraq policy, the Bush administration is bracing for a new wave of legislative pressure over Iraq before Congress recesses in August. The 2008 defense authorization bill up for debate in the Senate this week will likely prompt a flurry of proposals on everything from mandating a troop reduction (CQ) within 120 days to requiring the president to seek a new authorization for the Iraq war.

To supporters of President Bush’s surge strategy, now fully under way, the new criticism amounts to pandering in a supercharged election season. In the presidential race, Iraq has been a sharp dividing line between Republican and Democratic candidates. Democrats have seized on low public approval ratings for Bush’s war policy to call for a change in strategy that involves troop redeployments out of Iraq. The Wall Street Journal editorializes that most of the Democratic candidates want to “use Iraq as a partisan club to win the 2008 elections, and only then worry about the consequences.” CFR’s Max Boot calls it a “poll-driven cave-in” by Republicans occurring at a time when the Bush administration’s surge policy has barely begun.

Republican skeptics on Iraq like Sens. Pete Domenici (R-NM), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) are up for reelection next year. But the biggest warning shout this summer has come from veteran Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), who easily won his seat again last November. Lugar’s floor speech late last month to recalibrate Iraq strategy was a call to alarm that the “constraints of our own domestic political process,” along with other factors were hampering the government’s ability to engineer a solution to the conflict. Put another way, Bush is approaching a moment where he is “in danger of losing control of the war” if Republicans in Congress begin to abandon him, writes Byron York of the National Review. That moment is expected to be in September when U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker deliver status reports. In the interim, administration officials are due to deliver a report by this weekend on the “benchmarks” measuring progress in Iraq. A recent Congressional Research Service report finds poor performance (PDF) by the Iraqi government.

Of more long-term concern, say some analysts and lawmakers, is the degree to which U.S. foreign policy has become polarized. The ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), told Fox News that partisan arguments over Iraq policy point to a greater need to have a “national debate about do we believe that radical jihadists are a threat to U.S. security in the long term.” This is reflected in views of the 2008 presidential candidates, with Republicans indicating far more concern than Democrats about a long-term struggle against jihadi forces. CFR Senior Fellow Charles A. Kupchan and Peter L. Trubowitz, senior fellow at the Robert S. Strauss Center for Security and International Law, write in the latest Foreign Affairs: “On the most basic questions of U.S. grand strategy—the sources and purposes of U.S. power, the use of force, the role of international institutions—representatives of the two parties are on different planets.”

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