Who Lost Iraq? The Political Question

If the U. S. Intervention in Iraq -- begun in 2003 -- ends badly, there will surely be consequences, not only in the geopolitical sense, but on the American political scene. But how that plays out and who, in the end, will be picked by the voters to blame, is uncertain at this point.

The first instinct is to say that George W. Bush and the Republicans will get the blame. It is his policy, and, until recently, their almost monolithic support of the policy that got us into Iraq and clearly bungled the aftermath of the invasion. And certainly, in this month's elections the Republicans suffered because of it. But what about the longer run?

When Richard Nixon, a Republican president, pulled American troops out of Vietnam after losing more American soldiers there during his presidency than did his Democratic predecessor Lyndon Johnson, it turned out to be the Democrats --- affiliated with George McGovern's early call for Vietnam withdrawal --- who were punished for years as being a party "soft on defense."

When Mao Tse-tung and the Communists forced Chiang kai-Shek and his nationalists out of mainland China in 1949, a furious debate raged in the United States over "who lost China?" The Republicans blamed Harry Truman and his State department, but history has concluded that no one on this side of the Pacific Ocean was to blame: the corrupt Nationalist rulers themselves lost China.

So, when President Bush begins to publicly question what the Iraqi government's plan is for success -- and the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin says we must force the Iraqis to do more for themselves by beginning a troop withdrawal next year -- it is certainly possible, no matter how illogical, that the American voter will conclude it was the Iraqis who are to blame for the mess created there.

We Americans hate to lose, and we hate to accept responsibility for our mistakes. Japanese-Americans, interned as if they were potential terrorists at the beginning of World War II, finally got their apology from our government -- but it took over 40 years for it to come.

Then, too, no matter how many people die on the streets of our western movies, we love the macho cowboy who guns them down. Yes, John Wayne always wore the 'white hat' but see how so many Americans react to verified stories of American atrocities, whether at My Lai in Vietnam or various towns in Iraq. We simply excuse it with one rationale or another, and the fellow who tries to make the case that we are wrong to not own up to our mistakes is often punished by the voters for his trouble.

At the moment it would appear that Iraq, et al, will be a central topic of the 2008 presidential election. But who benefits depends, first, on what happens finally in Iraq and second, on how any American failure there is framed for and by the voters.

Yes, George W. Bush and his Republicans are still the top candidates to suffer continued political damage if things go badly in Iraq. But believe me, the voters will be looking for an "out:" after all, to blame the people they put in power is, to some extent, to blame themselves.

The Democrats, who are already 'licking their chops' in anticipation of electoral success, might put away some money for their victory party but would be wise to not rent the ballroom just yet.