Iraq war splits America like never before

The controversial war in Iraq has split the nation even more than Vietnam and politicians on both sides of the political aisle agree the differences go so deep that the wounds make take longer to heal, if in fact they ever do.

The problem goes far beyond just whether or not one supports the invasion of Iraq but stems from bitter partisanship that rips the very fabric of American society. Political scientists, elected officials and everyday Americans look at the anger that divides the country and wonder if common ground is now impossible to find.

Robin Toner and Jim Rutenberg focus on the issue in today’s New York Times:

No military conflict in modern times has divided Americans on partisan lines more than the war in Iraq, scholars and pollsters say — not even Vietnam. And those divisions are likely to intensify in what is expected to be a contentious fall election campaign.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows what one expert describes as a continuing “chasm” between the way Republicans and Democrats see the war. Three-fourths of the Republicans, for example, said the United States did the right thing in taking military action against Iraq, while just 24 percent of the Democrats did. Independents split down the middle.

“The present divisions are quite without precedent,” said Ole R. Holsti, a professor of political science at Duke University and the author of “Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy.”

The Vietnam War caused a wrenching debate that echoes to this day and shaped both parties, but at the time, public opinion did not divide so starkly on party lines, experts say. The partisan divide on Iraq has fluctuated but endured across two intensely fought campaigns in which war and peace — and the overarching campaign against terrorism — have figured heavily. Each party has its internal differences, especially on future strategy for Iraq. But the overall divide is a defining feature of the fall campaign.

The White House’s top political advisers are advancing a strategy built around national security, arguing that Iraq is a central front in the battle against global terrorism and that opposition to the war is tantamount to “cutting and running” in a broader struggle to keep America safe.

After three years of conflict, Democrats argue that the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq should not be equated with a stronger, safer America. Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said recently, “Nearly everywhere you look — from the Middle East to Asia — America’s enemies have been emboldened by the administration’s mismanagement of Iraq.”

The voters, at times, are even more impassioned. Representative Henry J. Hyde, Republican of Illinois and chairman of the International Relations Committee, said that voters, pro or con, were treating the war the way they treated the mention of Richard M. Nixon in the 1974 post-Watergate midterm campaign. “Nobody is tepid on this issue,” said Mr. Hyde, who is planning to retire.

Many experts and members of both parties say they worry about the long-term consequences of such bitter partisan polarization and its effect on the longstanding tradition — although one often honored in the breach — that foreign policy is built on bipartisan trust and consensus.

“The old idea that politics stops at the water’s edge is no longer with us, and I think we’ve lost something as a result,” said John C. Danforth, a former senator and an ambassador to the United Nations under President Bush.

A variety of experts in both parties said they worried about the aftermath of intense partisanship.

“This era in general feels excessively partisan, and national security has been put right into the mix of intense partisan debate,” said Thomas E. Donilon, a lawyer and a former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. “And it’s a mistake in terms of the president developing support for his position on these tough issues.”

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who until June 2003 served as director of policy planning for the State Department, said all nuance got lost in a campaign debate.

“You end up with very stark choices: quote, stay the course, versus, quote, cut and run,” Mr. Haass said. “And in reality, a lot of policy needs to be made between them.”

Many experts, though, said they were not sure what would change the current political climate. “It’s hard to repair the breach,” said John Podesta, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

Anger over the war has split the Democratic Party with many going after one of their own — Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-DT) because he supports the war. Yet the new poll also shows even less than half of Republicans (49 percent) think Americans are winning the war in Iraq and  many Republican candidates for office openly admit they will distance themselves from President Bush and his war in Iraq during the midterm elections.

Yet hope for the future of America comes not from Americans interviewed in the CBS-New York Times but from across the pond where Matthrew Parris of the London Times writes:

Our opinion is simply expressed. It is that George W. Bush is not America. We see danger in conflating one rogue US President with the personality and the ideals of a whole great nation.

Muscle can remake friends as fast as it loses them. If after the present interlude the United States were to resume her ancient, humane, rule-based internationalism, it would not be long before she became leader of the gang in the Free World again.