Image: A U.S. soldier wears a traditional Arab scarf to protect himself from hot wind in Fallujah, west of Baghdad.
A U.S. soldier wears a traditional Arab scarf to protect himself from hot wind in Fallujah, west of Baghdad.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/14/2003 3:57:39 AM ET 2003-07-14T07:57:39

The debate over the cost in lives and dollars of the U.S. occupation of Iraq gives Democratic presidential contenders another opportunity to peel skeptical voters away from supporting President Bush. Adding to that opportunity are new Washington Post and Newsweek polls showing declining support for Bush’s handling of the Iraq occupation.

One cannot discuss the current political jockeying over Iraq without recalling the nine-month run-up to the invasion.

Democrats are demanding an investigation of why Bush included a reference to British intelligence reports that Iraq had sought to buy uranium for nuclear weapons from Africa. Bush and his aides now say that information should not have been included in his State of the Union address.

ANGRY DEMOCRATS

Among rank-and-file Democrats, anger over Iraq is boiling up on the campaign trail.

At a “Hear It from the Heartland” forum hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, in Dubuque, Iowa Sunday, presidential contender Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri was berated by one member of the audience who demanded that Gephardt apologize for voting for the congressional resolution last year authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq.

While not apologizing, Gephardt sounded remorseful, saying he’d made the most conscientious decision he could, given the information he had at the time.

Another presidential contender who voted for the use-of-force resolution, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry said last week he was “absolutely convinced my vote was the right vote,” but he too calls for a probe into the pre-war intelligence.

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean, the Democratic contender with the most momentum right now, is the candidate of those who say the Iraq invasion should never have happened at all.

Their loyalty to Dean is based largely on him having taken what they see as the courageous stand before the war — while his rival Democratic presidential hopefuls, Gephardt, Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, all voted “aye” when the roll was called on the resolution authorizing Bush to use military force.

Two other Democratic contenders, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, voted against the resolution.

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Now with 185,000 U.S. troops deployed in and around Iraq, what should the United States do?

Even Dean, the harshest critic of the invasion and of those Democrats who backed it, does not call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Of the Democratic hopefuls, only Kucinich so far has called for an exit strategy, and even he does not specify a date by which he wants all troops out.

This caution makes some political sense since a new found that 60 percent of Democrats still support the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Yet that same poll shows that 80 percent of those surveyed fear the United States will become tied down in a long occupation.

MAKING THE OCCUPATION WORK

How is the United States to make this occupation work?

Some congressional Democrats stress that to be successful, the occupation must last a long time.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., said last week, “I hope we’re going to be there for a long time — because we have got to be successful.” Nelson envisions a minimum five-year U.S. commitment.

Having many more U.S. personnel fluent in Arabic would help make the commitment successful — a point made by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius last week. But that’s a long-term deficiency needing years of work to remedy.

If, in the short term, foreign governments can’t be persuaded to contribute large peacekeeping forces, then the only way to relieve the burden on U.S. soldiers in Iraq would be a bigger overall U.S. military, so that troops could be rotated in and out of Iraq more frequently.

It was a Democratic senator and a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who made that point most forcefully last week.

“We have to increase our forces in order to have an appropriate rotation schedule and in order to ensure that our troops have the time to train, prepare, rest, and regroup when they come out of these deployments,” Reed told MSNBC.com. “It’s not just Iraq, it is worldwide.”

‘THE SPELL OF FEAR’

But for Kucinich and other Democratic critics of Bush such talk is anathema. In their view, military spending is already starving domestic priorities.

“The Pentagon budget is the key issue in this election because that rising budget in the Pentagon has been driven by fear,” Kucinich said in a speech last week. “We have to break the spell of fear.”

If instead of military outlays being three percent of Gross Domestic Product, the low point in recent history (in 1999), it becomes normal for military spending to be 5 percent of GDP, as in the Jimmy Carter years or 6 percent as during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, that will make new Democratic spending initiatives on child care, education and other goals less feasible.

Some Democrats voice frustration and bewilderment that Bush’s support, as seen in poll data, has not fallen further as the casualties rise in Iraq.

At a National Organization for Women forum for the Democratic contenders Friday night, political satirist Elayne Boosler said Americans’ support for Bush resembled “the battered woman syndrome,” as she put it, “loyalty to a man who, under the guise of protecting her, is kicking the crap out of her because she actually has no constitution left with which to walk out. How are you going to speak to these people?”

One answer Dean has come up with is to argue that Bush is really weakening — not strengthening — national security.

“We have nearly two-thirds — maybe even more than that — of our forces committed in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Dean told the NOW convention Friday. “We are in trouble if we need those forces elsewhere. This president has unwittingly undermined the ability of the United States of America to defend itself, both by his enormous deficits and by his deployment of troops and the inadequacy of those deployments when they got the where they were going to go.”

Dean’s “two-thirds” figure is incorrect.

The 195,000 Army personnel deployed in and near Iraq and in Afghanistan amount to about 40 percent — not two-thirds — of the active-duty Army forces.

But Dean’s point is the same one voiced by Sen. Reed about an over-stretched military.

SEND TROOPS TO LIBERIA?

Yet at the same time Dean supports a new commitment of American forces to bring peace to the west African country of Liberia.

“If it is OK for the United States to stop genocide in Kosovo and Bosnia, then we had better stop genocide in Liberia,” Dean told the NOW gathering.

As American troops continue to be killed in Iraq, Dean, Kerry and the other Democratic presidential contenders may sharpen their argument that Bush’s handling of national security is incompetent.

Some Democratic strategists worry, however, that many voters do not trust the Democrats to handle national security. Franklin Foer, a columnist for the Democratic magazine The New Republic, cites poll data showing that 72 percent of the public trust Bush to handle terrorism better than the Democrats.

The Democratic presidential contenders’ lack of military expertise is “an Achilles’ heel for them,” argues Foer. His solution: the Democrats ought to nominate someone who has flirted with running, but hasn’t yet jumped into the race: retired Gen. Wesley Clark.

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