Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Two pivotal, but underreported, developments are overlooked in the escalating political battle over the war in Iraq.

First, no matter how disenchanted Americans have become about the war to establish a strong, stable pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East’s terrorist breeding ground, a majority still opposes our pulling out before we have achieved that mission.

A recent poll by The Washington Post/ABC News found 52 percent want the U.S. troops kept in Iraq until Iraqis’ security forces can maintain civil order. That hasn’t changed.

Despite a fierce Democratic offensive in Congress for withdrawing U.S. military forces next year, if not sooner, the poll found only about 1-in-5 believe we should leave right away.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert knew that when, during a furious assault by Democrats on the war issue, he decided to give them an up-or-down vote on immediate pullout. Essentially, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, proposed that on Thursday.

In fact, there was no real consensus in Mr. Murtha’s party about yanking U.S. troops out in the midst of Iraq’s most perilous hour, and Mr. Hastert knew that, too.

After a similarly well-coordinated Senate offensive, followed by the usually hawkish Mr. Murtha’s surprise pullout suggestion, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate leader Harry Reid and Party Chairman Howard Dean milked the issue for all the political mileage they could get. Republicans had to call their bluff. Mr. Hastert did so, scheduling a quick vote late Friday.

“The Democrats want to play politics, so let’s play politics with it. See if their votes are where their mouths are,” barked Carl Forti, Republican Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman. The measure, predictably, was crushed 403-3. The Democrats were all talk and no convictions.

Second, no one is talking about the widening rift in Democratic ranks between the hard left antiwar wing and many of its congressional leaders. Democrats may appear all antiwar, but they’re all over the lot, especially the leadership.

When some Senate Democratic war critics last week proposed an amendment suggesting a timetable for troop withdrawal, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, rushed to the floor to denounce it.

“The debate in our country and in this city has grown much too partisan over what is happening in Iraq,” Mr. Lieberman lectured Democrats. “And that partisanship has begun to get in the way of our successful completion of our mission there.”

Yes, the debate over the credibility of prewar intelligence nearly three years ago was important, “but not as important as about how we successfully complete our mission in Iraq, how we protect the men and women fighting for us in uniform over there, how we do what the majority of members of both parties has said is so important to us, successfully complete this mission,” Mr. Lieberman said.

He fears the pacifist message of the Democrats, “and that is a message that I feel will discourage our troops in the field, will encourage the terrorists and confuse the Iraqis.”

Mr. Lieberman wasn’t the only Democrat rejecting the antiwar, pullout wing of his party. While Mr. Murtha’s call for withdrawal drew fulsome praise from Mrs. Pelosi and the party’s left, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, No. 2 Democrat in the House, reacted with sullen silence. Pulling the rug out from under the Iraqis in this struggle against the terrorists was not the tough-minded national security agenda Mr. Hoyer’s party desperately needs to stake out in next year’s elections.

Increasingly, Democrats’ peace wing is shaping the party’s national security agenda, and they are going after anyone who does not toe the antiwar line. Even Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is under attack for supporting the war and not embracing the full withdrawal plan pushed by liberal Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold (emerging the hero of the antiwar crowd and a 2008 presidential contender).

In an open letter on leftist filmmaker Michael Moore’s Web site, antiwar crusader Cindy Sheehan attacked Mrs. Clinton’s support for the war, vowing to “resist your candidacy with every bit of my power and strength. … I think she is a political animal who believes she has to be war hawk to keep up with the big boys.”

What particularly enraged Mrs. Sheehan and her antiwar supporters was what Mrs. Clinton told the Village Voice: “My bottom line is that I don’t want their sons to die in vain… I don’t believe it’s smart to set a date for withdrawal. I don’t think it’s the right time to withdraw.”

This is a party badly divided over the paramount national security issue of our time, and that will not help their credibility in 2006 and beyond.

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

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