During 2007, the major news item continued to be the war in Iraq. On Jan. 4, the 110th Congress convened—the first time during the Bush administration Democrats had controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many of us expected this changing of the guard would produce a shift in Iraq policy, a real plan for withdrawal of U.S. troops. Sadly, this didn’t happen; the war not only continued, but President Bush upped the number of troops with his “surge” initiative. At year’s end, many Berkeley residents wondered whether it was possible to change anything while Bush was still in office.
A recent Pew Research Poll found that nearly half of the public (48 percent) believe the military effort in Iraq is now “going well or fairly well.” However, a majority of Americans (54 percent) continue to believe our troops should come home as soon as possible—a plurality that has remained remarkably constant throughout the year. As the war has dragged on, the United States has become deeply polarized—41 percent of the public wants our troops to stay in Iraq as long as it takes to achieve “victory.”
Most Berkeley residents view President Bush as dogmatic and inflexible and his attitude about the war has reinforced this assessment. Even though his approval ratings have hovered in the thirties throughout the year, Bush has rebuffed all Congressional attempts to change course in Iraq. (As a result, the approval ratings for Congress are now lower than those of the president.)
If you are a supporter of George W. Bush, then it’s likely you believe he’s doing the right thing by staying the course in Iraq. But if you’re not a Bush fan, then you became very frustrated this year: you thought the Democrats in Congress didn’t stand up to the president. Finally, at the end of the year, Democrats in the House of Representatives responded to Bush’s intransigence by postponing consideration of additional Iraq funding. There was increasing indication that Dems were ready to battle the President on this issue.
If Democrats do confront the White House, they won’t get help from the Republican Presidential candidates. The GOP front-runners—Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney, and Thompson—all want the United States to stay in Iraq until we “win.” The Republicans are running as mini-Dubyas even while they carefully avoid mentioning Bush’s name. (On the Democratic side, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama favor a withdrawal plan, but with caveats that could result in thousands of American troops remaining in Iraq at the end of 2011.)
In 2008, two factors may force a change in Iraq policy. The first is the continuing deterioration of the U.S. economy. In November, a Newsweek poll reported that, for the first time all year, the public considered “the economy and jobs” to be a more important issue than Iraq.
As America’s focus shifts to the mortgage crisis, the credit crunch, and the possibility of recession, Bush’s scare tactics about Iraq have had less traction. Since 9/11, the administration’s message to the American people has been, “You can have it all, tax cuts and a profligate war on terror, because the economy is robust.” Now, as U.S. financial systems tank, more and more Americans are asking if it’s reasonable to continue a war that is costing $2 billion per week and whose estimated total cost could exceed $2 trillion. (So far, the war in Iraq has cost Berkeley residents $171 million. That’s roughly $1,710 for each man, woman, and child in the city.)
Mounting concern about the cost of the war has been accompanied by the refrain, “when are Iraqis going to be able to govern themselves?” Democrats have long taken the position that it is unreasonable for the U.S. military to be asked to serve in the role of the Iraqi police force in the middle of a civil war. The Iraqi government has yet to achieve any of the political objectives that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki delineated a year ago.
Nonetheless, the White House downplays the lack of political progress. Now, key Republican Senators such as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina argue that if the Iraqi government doesn’t show progress by the end of the year, it’s time for a change in U.S. strategy. Recently, Washington Post military writer Thomas Ricks noted: “Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than Al Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.”
Early in 2008 there will be another showdown over Iraq: whether U.S. involvement is worth the price. It’s likely that when President Bush says it is, that America has to stumble on, regardless of the cost, he will find he has lost the support of a veto-proof majority in Congress. Then our troops will begin to come home.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.