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Outflanked in Iraq

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In a press conference Thursday, the president labeled MoveOn's recent ad in the New York Times "disgusting" and questioned the patriotism of Democrats who refused to repudiate it. Those were disingenuous words from a president who was either silent or complicit in the whisper campaign against John McCain in the 2000 primary election (which suggested that McCain's years as a prisoner of war had left him a little unbalanced) and who said nothing as an "independent" organization attacked the metals of a decorated war veteran, John Kerry, in the 2004 election while American boots were on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rather than calling attention to the president's faux outrage at attacks on a military man and the fact that the real outrage is his steadfast refusal to stop playing Russian Roulette with other people's children without a clear exit strategy or even a realistic definition any more of "success" that doesn't shift like the sand depending on which guidepost is no longer even visible in the desert, Senate Democrats took the bait. The same Congress that has never held anyone accountable for the policy that has left 30,000 American soldiers dead or wounded, largely by incendiary devices, suddenly mustered a rousing 72-vote majority to condemn an incendiary turn of phrase.

In a scene that is now all too familiar, Democrats were once again outflanked, playing checkers while the other side played chess, worrying about the next move ("They'll say we don't support our troops") while Republicans were thinking several moves ahead. For years they had allowed Republicans to elide the war on al Qaeda with the war in Iraq with the carefully crafted phrase, "the war on terror"--and they allowed them yet again to reinforce the association between the two by permitting General Petraeus to testify about Iraq on September 11. For years they have allowed the Republicans to blur the distinction between supporting our men and women in uniform and deploying them to referee a civil war in the desert with the phrase, "support our troops.'

Now, in hastily supporting a Republican-crafted resolution just like the ones used while the Republicans were in the majority to trap Democrats into unpopular stands readily taken out of context for campaign ads, Democrats yet again allowed Republicans to mix and match messages that have no logical relation to one another, eliding respect for Petraeus as a general, support for his conclusions, and support for our men and women in uniform: "To express the sense of the Senate that General David II. Petraeus, Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq, deserves the full support of the Senate and strongly condemn personal attacks on the honor and integrity of General Petraeus and all members of the United States Armed Forces."

If the Democrats in the Senate were worried about the impact of the headline of the MoveOn ad, which attacked the general's recounting of the facts on the ground less effectively than the text of the ad, they have just amplified it by reinforcing that the central theme of the Republican message on Iraq from the start: that opposition to the war is an attack on the military, when in fact the Iraq war, by all accounts, has done nothing but weaken our military, strengthen the foothold of terrorists abroad, and undermine our national security. And they have done nothing but to reinforce the message that people who question administration policy on matters of war and peace are traitors. For the record, Americans have died for over 200 years defending, not passing resolutions against, free speech.

No matter that Petraeus had in fact taken the highly political step of publishing an op-ed piece just prior to the 2004 election designed to support the re-election of George W. Bush. No matter that the carefully sourced criticism of Petraeus' depiction of the Iraq War in the MoveOn ad has gone unchallenged, while its questionable headline has been seized upon by Republicans looking to reinforce their branding of Democrats as anti-military and un-American--and now by Democrats, who have lent the imprimatur of the United States Senate to the Republicans' branding campaign. No matter that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid himself had had to offer a convoluted message to describe the Democrats' response to Petraeus' purportedly independent testimony (which sounded eerily similar to the president's recent message on Iraq, including a similar number of troops dangled as potentially returning home at some indeterminate date): "I have every belief that this good man, General Petraeus, will give us what he feels is the right thing to do in this report, that is now not his report...It's President Bush's report. President Bush took final ownership of this when he landed in Anbar Province just a few days ago." After suffering one humiliating defeat after another at the hands of the Republican minority, the Democrats had to prove they could pass something, even if it was their own epitaph.

Last November, the electorate was angry but hopeful. When the Democratic Congress surrendered to the president in late May in an attempt to "support the troops before Memorial Day," however, they were surprised that the outrage had now turned on them. Within a week they found their performance rated unfavorably not only by Democrats but by the Independents who had swept them into power. That should have been a wake-up call that their strategic calculations were miscalculations, and that their attempt to craft a "middle ground" that would appeal to moderate Republicans in the Congress--and in the process make Democrats appear, as they had been for the last five years, like supplicants to their Republican colleagues, begging for crumbs and pleading for them to be reasonable--was not winning the middle in Middle America. After repeating the same strategy, punctuated by public hand-wringing and protestations of impotence (justified in terms of rules about cloture and filibusters arcane to the average citizen), they find themselves today with an approval rating at 11 percent.

The conclusion they should have drawn is that you can't project fear and have people trust you on national security. When voters perceive a mismatch between what their leaders say and what they do, they pay attention to what they do. And right now, they aren't listening to Democrats' positions on national security, which are difficult to discern (because they vary by the day, depending on whether they are preaching compromise, confrontation, or helplessness in the face of Republican intransigence). They're watching their posture, which seems anything but courageous and upright. They remember well how Republicans bullied the Democrats for five straight years in Congress and cowed them into relinquishing their right to use the same filibuster Republicans now threaten to use at every turn, and they get the message: that Democrats are weak in the face of aggression, and can barely put their hands in front of their faces to block the blows from a minority in Congress and from a bully sitting in his bully pulpit at 29 percent in the polls.

Since 2001, Democrats have repeatedly cast votes for things they didn't believe in because they don't trust the intelligence of the American people. They don't believe they can convey, or their constituents can grasp, the subtleties of the situation in Iraq, habeas corpus, torture and detention of foreign nationals (creating rules of the game that can be used against our troops and our children if the travel abroad), and warrantless wiretapping. But in so doing, they vastly underestimate the emotional intelligence of the electorate -- which happens to be a much better predictor of their voting behavior. People may not follow closely arguments about FISA courts, but they do follow the messages their elected representatives convey louder than words. They understood in 2006 what the Republican leadership really cared about when they discovered how long they'd known about Mark Foley's illicit interest in high school boys, and they understood what was happening in Iraq when George W. Bush was using the same words he'd used for the last three years as the situation visibly deteriorated.

Today, they understand that Democrats are afraid of taking a stand for fear of being branded. If Democrats really want to end the war, there is only one place to start: they need to stop repeating the Republican brand about what it means to "support the troops" and tell Americans what it really means to support the brave men and women who wear the uniform of the United States of America: to deploy every other weapon in our arsenal--including diplomacy--before we ask them to risk their lives; to enter into war only after an honest and judicious examination of the evidence, not to cherry-pick the data to justify a predetermined plan and demote and impugn any general who tells you that the plan offering the best opportunities for selling the war (i.e., no cost, no sacrifice) is not the plan offering the best possibility for success (as occurred with General Shinseki); to take care of our wounded soldiers when they return home, and to give them time with their families to recover, physically and psychologically, between tours of duty; to stop fighting at every turn increases in their combat pay and the survivor benefits to their loved ones should they perish in battle, and to shed a tear with their families at their funerals, so that they know our leaders are truly with them in their grief and so those who send them to war get a visceral feeling for the costs of war; to proudly display their flag-draped coffins when they return to shores they will never see, rather than to whisk their bodies into the country in the middle of the night and ban photographers from taking any pictures of them because it might be bad for "public relations"; and when it is clear that staying the course is no longer a viable option, to plan for their safe return to their country and loved ones rather than to justify further losses with past losses and to brand anyone who opposes an indefinite drain on our military as a traitor.

If Democrats really want to end the war, and to carry out the job the people sent them to do in November of last year, they need to tell the kinds of stories I'm hearing when I talk to servicemen and women every time I go to the airport, like the 23-year old mother of two who just got sent back for her second tour of duty, who had tears in her eyes as she described what it's like to abandon her three-month old baby and how her older child didn't recognize her when she returned home from her last deployment. If they want to end the war, they should put forward the most responsible bill they can propose, with whatever guidelines or timetables they believe are truly in the best interest of our nation and our soldiers, and if the Republicans filibuster, let them filibuster, and attach the names and faces of every soldier killed or maimed in the meantime to those who are obstructing the will of the people. That's supporting our troops, and that's what will bring this terrible chapter in American history to a close, as Americans start to see on television, live and on camera, who is supporting our troops and who is sending them to their graves while happily spending time with their own families or planning lavish White House weddings for their own children when we are allegedly engaged in a battle for our freedom and civilization.

If Democrats really want to end this war, they should make clear that our troops won this war valiantly and with remarkable efficiency in a matter of weeks in 2006, when they toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, but that they have no business fighting in someone else's civil war, created by an administration that at every step mishandled the plans for peace and continually changed the definitions of victory when they needed to lower expectations. If Democrats really want to end this war, they will make clear to parents of teenagers that an indefinite presence in Iraq will likely require reinstatement of the draft, so that next time they vote with a realistic concern for the lives and well-being of their teenagers. And they should demand that the president and those who support what is now unambiguously a Republican war pay for their war and tell us whose taxes they are going to raise to pay not only for the next appropriation but for the last half a trillion dollars they spent while the Republicans in Congress charged the costs of their miscalculations to our children and grandchildren and generations yet unborn. If Democrats want to end this war that has for four years required no sacrifice from anyone but our troops and their families, they will refuse to appropriate another penny from our children's piggy-banks so voters can decide if they really think it's worth it when they feel it in their paychecks or portfolios. Perhaps then Republicans will decide it's time to bring our troops home--or the voters will bring them home in 2008.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and founder of Westen Strategies. He is the author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation