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Playing politics with Iraq

by Leonard Williams and Neil Wollman

In May of 2002, Vice President Cheney warned Democrats not to seek political advantage from the war against terrorism. Now that the Bush administration views Iraq as the “central front” in that war, the news indicates that some people are indeed seeking political advantage from that conflict—despite Cheney’s warning. It is not just the Democrats running for president, though. These days, Republicans and the Bush administration are the ones most focused on using the war for electoral purposes.



To set the stage, think back to the 2002 congressional elections when Republicans painted any skepticism about the president’s policies as disloyal and unpatriotic. Then, last July, the Washington Times quoted Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, as saying that Democrats “have crossed the line” of acceptable discourse by trying to score political points when American troops and the Iraqi people are facing life-and-death situations. Now, with the start of the presidential campaign, Iowa voters are being shown television ads proclaiming that: “Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists.”

The National Republican Party wants to turn the debate over war with Iraq to their partisan advantage. Their reasons for doing so can be traced to the fact that President Bush’s popularity has declined. It has declined because the original rationale for the war (large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction) has not been supported by any evidence. His popularity has also declined because the postwar occupation of Iraq has not gone smoothly.

What has been the administration’s response to these policy failures? Their first response was to change the rationale for the war. Where the United States was once confronting a looming military threat, now it is said to be creating a free society in an antidemocratic region. This argument rarely surfaced until late in the pre-war debate, likely because it was not a compelling reason for invading a sovereign nation.

Their second response has been to schedule a faster transition to a new Iraqi government. This represents a change in what the administration previously considered important to establishing a free and stable Iraq, namely writing a constitution and building infrastructure over several years rather than quickly holding independent elections or hastily training Iraqi security forces. Despite its earlier statements, the administration has also made a strong push to internationalize the Iraqi situation. While this would result in fewer American casualties, it would also let the United States shift some blame if things do not work out as planned.

In each case, President Bush and his Republican allies have denied that they are changing direction or acting politically. And they have now intensified earlier criticisms of Democrats, saying that it is the critics of the war and the occupation who are (as Sen. Orrin Hatch said) “playing cheap politics” with national security. They argue that Democrats are trying to make political hay out of the administration’s difficulties in Iraq. At the same time, conservative commentators have been hitting Democratic presidential candidates hard by saying that their criticisms of administration policy are not only unpatriotic, but give aid and comfort to “the enemy.”

While accusing Democrats of partisan motives, administration officials such as Secretary of State Colin Powell still assert that the advent of new policies in Iraq somehow “rises above domestic politics.” How is this possible, when such policy changes clearly follow on the heels of daily casualties for coalition forces and steady declines in the president’s poll ratings? In our view, when they say it’s not about politics, it’s about politics. The policy change has to be political, because prior to Iraq becoming a political liability for President Bush, the Iraqis were said to be not yet ready for self-government.

Can the administration’s policy shift have occurred (as national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has asserted) simply because there was a “clamor” for self-rule among the Iraqis themselves? We doubt it, because earlier appeals by Iraqis and the international community went unheard. Now that a sizable number of Americans think that our country is off on the wrong track and that it may be time to elect a Democrat as president, the administration’s hearing has suddenly become better than ever.

Note that it is not just prominent Democrats, such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, who are calling the advanced Iraqi timetable a strategy to help President Bush win re-election. Members of Iraq’s own Governing Council are doing so, too. In our view, the administration’s favorite Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi, has revealed the true reason for the policy shift toward a speedy “Iraqification.” As Chalabi told the New York Times, the “whole thing was set up so President Bush could come to the airport in October for a ceremony to congratulate the new Iraqi government”—just in time to influence the November elections.

So who’s playing politics with Iraq now?

Leonard Williams is Professor of Political Science, and Neil Wollman is Senior Fellow with the Peace Studies Institute, at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. (Prof. Williams, 260-982-5335,; Prof. Wollman, 260-982-5346,



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