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The Democratic presidential pack is desperate. Five senators, a governor and a representative are seeking one surefire way to capture hearts, minds and votes whenever they are asked what should be done about Iraq now that post-surge statistics show violence there has at least temporarily declined.
Their quandary is based on a false perception that many think and no one speaks: The misguided notion that good news for the U.S. military is bad news for Democratic presidential prospects.
Wrong. One senator proposed the perfect solution — and if an Iraq solution is the standard for choosing a standard-bearer, then the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee ought to be Sen. George Aiken of Vermont.
There are, of course, two hitches: Aiken’s lifelong membership in the Republican Party, and the fact that Aiken’s long life ended in 1984, at the age of 92.
But the Iraq War application of Aiken’s famous prescription for ending with honor the Vietnam War remains even more fitting today than it was in the 1960s: Declare victory and get out.
Aiken was not your typical anti-war liberal dove. He had supported the war initially and the bombing of North Vietnam. But he knew quagmire when he saw it. And so he sought a solution that would please hawks that wanted a victory, and doves, which wanted the war ended.
There never was a U.S. victory moment in Vietnam, but we are there now in Iraq. The war President Bush started has been won. Saddam Hussein — an evil despot who killed many thousands of his fellow Iraqis — has been toppled, captured, convicted and executed.
What happened since then was that Bush committed the same error that Republicans rightly blasted President Bill Clinton for committing in the comparatively minor military mission in Somalia: A never-announced mission creep.
U.S. forces were allowed to be sucked into the vortex of a bloody three-way Iraqi civil war pitting Sunni, Shia and Kurdish forces against each other. Indeed, it has been at least a six-sided civil war, as Iraq’s factions within factions and outsiders from al Qaeda and Iran have slipped into Iraq. Muslims are killing Muslims — and the U.S. military has been allowed to become trapped in the middle, being killed and wounded by all factions and fringes. American men and women on their second and third tours in Iraq have been at war longer than their grandfathers were in World War II.
But now, U.S. military figures show that the civil-warfare in Iraq has become, at least statistically, a bit more civil. So Iraq’s politicians have no excuse to continue refusing to make political peace. But they do need a push.
That should be the Democrats’ new master plan. Start by celebrating the fact that the U.S. troops won their war. This is the perfect time for Democrats to demonstrate the extinction of their three decades of reflexive dovish imagery. Fly with the hawks by celebrating U.S. military victories. Out-hawk the hawks by vowing to accomplish what Bush failed to do — vanquish al Qaeda. Also, defeat for a second time the Afghanistan Taliban that, because of a Bush Team attention deficit disorder, was allowed to regain what they had lost.
Now is the time for Democrats to demonstrate that theirs is the party of 21st-century smart power, the combination of military and diplomatic power and vision.
Failure to seize the initiative now could cause Democrats to be forever outside the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., looking in on Inauguration Day. Now is the time for Democrats to declare “Mission Accomplished!” And show that they are ready to move vigorously to accomplish the next stage by sending Iraqi politicians the only signal they will understand — by getting out. And also by declaring their party’s determination to defeat the enemy that attacked us on 9/11 and has been allowed to survive and recoup, recruit anew and threaten us again.
Democrats can rally around any of several commonsense withdrawal plans. One of the first was proposed two years ago by former Reagan assistant defense secretary Lawrence Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress: Withdraw most troops through a strategic redeployment, but keep some troops in the region with a mission of preventing al Qaeda from establishing a new sanctuary there.
Democrats can take their guidance from yet another bit of wisdom from Aiken, who said in 1966: “I’m not very keen for doves or hawks. I think we need more owls.”
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)