- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

This has not been a good month for the Democrats who are more dispirited, divided and in disarray than ever before about what to do in Iraq.

When a party’s leadership is unable to unite behind a clear position on the No. 1 national security issue facing America, it is not ready to govern. And that is the situation in which the Democrats now find themselves.

Last week Democratic leaders produced an election year agenda that said nothing about fighting the war on terror. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi blurted out the reason: “We don’t even have a party position on the war,” she told reporters.

Then there was a series of House and Senate votes last week to test just how much support the Democrats’ push for a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops could muster. All went down to overwhelming defeat.

The noisiest position coming out of the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party, fueled by an Internet army of left-wing bloggers, is for swift military withdrawal of U.S. forces. That is the view of Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the party’s newest hero who declared on “Meet The Press” Sunday, “We can’t win a war like this.”

He has been joined by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats’ indecisive 2004 presidential nominee who has been on just about every side of the Iraq debate that one can possibly be. First he was for the war. Then he was partially for the war if it was done right. He was against it before he was for it. Now, seeing the support Mr. Murtha is getting from the party’s antiwar base, Mr. Kerry — plotting another run for the presidency — has proposed a pullout, too, a position the Senate shot down last week.

But the Democrats’ clear front-runner for the presidency, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, thinks that would be a dumb move. Actually, she put it more politely, saying it’s not “a smart strategy” to tell the terrorists in Iraq we plan to withdraw, thereby leaving the Iraqi government there, still in its infancy, high and dry and giving al Qaeda terrorists their biggest victory since September 11, 2001. Mrs. Clinton was roundly booed for saying this at a gathering last week of liberal antiwar Democrats, further exposing the deepening party schisms over Iraq and security issues in general.

This is a party at war with itself over the most important national security issue of our time. The image it is sending is not just one of confusion and discord but of a party that shifts and retreats with the changing winds of public opinion, a party that has no deep abiding core convictions when the going gets tough — as it often can and has and will in the global war on terror.

The Democrats think that the bring-the-troops-home battle cry will lead to political victory in the November midterm elections and in some close races, could gain them more seats in Congress. But before Democrats begin measuring for new draperies in House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s office, the Republicans will weigh in with some weighty arguments of their own in the coming midterm campaigns that will turn the election into a referendum on the war on terrorism and who can keep us safe. For that’s what’s at stake in Iraq and in the region.

President Bush began to more sharply and graphically define the issue this week when he addressed about 5,000 Republican supporters at the President’s Dinner, a giant party fund-raiser that reaped $27 million for the GOP’s congressional campaigns.

“It’s important to have members of the United States Congress who will not wave the white flag of surrender in the war on terror,” Mr. Bush said Monday.

The image of the white flag of surrender is a very disturbing symbol that raises deeply troubling questions about the antiwar Democrats who have chosen the worst possible time to press their pullout demands.

In election politics as in strategic national security policymaking, timing is everything. Sadly, the Murtha-Kerry Democrats want to withdraw at the very time when the democratically elected Iraqi government is more unified than ever in its war against the insurgents, when the Iraqi national army is becoming larger and better trained each month and shouldering more of the war’s responsibilities, and when the terrorists have lost much of their leadership and base of support.

Hillary Clinton is right. This isn’t very smart. Retreat at this juncture in the war would embolden the terrorist insurgency in Iraq, encourage additional recruitment of Islamic fanatics who plot to attack the U.S. again, and hand al Qaeda leaders a strategic victory here at home that they cannot win in Iraq.

But this is the very policy of retreat and surrender that the Murtha-Kerry-Pelosi Democrats would champion if given the reins of power in Congress in November.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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