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Iraq, Terrorism, and U.S. Politics

Prepared by: CFR.org Staff
September 6, 2006

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After a summer which saw sectarian fighting in Iraq significantly worsen, political factions in the United States launched their own assaults (Houston Chronicle) on each other with an eye toward November’s U.S. midterm elections. The November vote, which polls suggest give Democrats a chance to take control of one if not both chambers of Congress, is shaping up to be the first such elections in modern history to turn on issues of foreign policy (Star-Ledger), as CFR.org’s Michael Moran writes. The Washington Times observes: "With the Democratic Party leadership intent on making the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq its No. 1 issue in the November elections, the White House is fighting back with a public campaign to explain the connection between Iraq and the larger war against Islamofascist terror."

Hard on the heels of the Labor Day holiday in America—the traditional kick-off point of election campaigns—President Bush scheduled a series of appearances designed to win back support for a war which, for at least a year, has been broadly unpopular among the public. In a speech Tuesday, he returned to a previous theme—the connection between the war in Iraq and the broader war against al-Qaeda—insisting that “for al-Qaeda, Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America— it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided.”

Democrats, and even some Republicans who now view the Iraq War as a mistake, believe the new emphasis on this purported link is an attempt to neutralize criticism of the difficult and fraught conflict. Citing previous instances where the Bush administration allegedly exaggerated such connections in the "war on terror," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) used a football analogy to dismiss the president’s argument: "The third time, you get stopped at the line of scrimmage,” Reid said. "They’ve run this play before." (The Hill). Still, top congressional Democrats, who fear being cast as soft on national security, only recently suggested a drawdown in Iraq (WashPost). In their latest move, Democrats trained their fire on an easier target than troop levels: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, demanding his resignation (ABC). Rumsfeld’s remarks a week earlier equating critics of the Bush administration’s Iraq policies with the appeasers of Hitler set off indignation that crossed party lines. As a Chicago Tribune editorial put it Wednesday, "There is an enemy. It’s not in the other party."

In Iraq, meanwhile, a report from Rumsfeld’s own Defense Department describes the country as being on the brink of all-out civil war. Anthony H. Cordesman, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaking to CFR.org's Bernard Gwertzman, gives the report a mixed review. Its economic coverage, he says, is "analytical rubbish," but its reporting of Iraq's security forces "has far more depth." Cordesman says the report’s political section, outlining the effort to build a national unity government in Iraq, "is probably the only strategy we can pursue at this point."

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