On the merits of withdrawal, the Democrats have it right. The politics of it, however, remain complicated. It’s become common among Democrats to argue for withdrawing from Iraq in the name of the troops.
Haunted by Vietnam, Democrats are determined to express support for the troops. This is admirable. The truth of the matter, however, is this: many troops in Iraq, perhaps even most of them, want to stay and fight. That doesn’t mean that we should stay in Iraq any longer. It does mean, however, that if Democrats want to bridge the divide between themselves and the military—an effort further complicated by their opposition to the war—they’re going to have to recognize that arguing in the name of the troops isn’t going to work.
Why is this so? Because as Ackerman explains, most of our soldiers don't want to be pulled out. As difficult as things have gotten in Iraq, as little progress as has been experienced, many of them still feel that they can turn things around in Iraq. And there's nothing wrong with that. Like all disciplined, well-trained and highly motivated soldiers, they have no desire to admit defeat, and are unlikely to concede it the need for withdrawal anytime in the near future. In fact, as Ackerman points out, the morale of the troops has improved since the beginning of the surge. And why wouldn't it? More troops and arms are being brought to bear against the enemy, and I think most of the soldiers know that this is the best possible effort we can put forth against the insurgents, al Qaeda, and the militias. And they want to see it through.
The problem of course is that although our troops are highly trained, they also generally share one view of the war: that of the soldier on the frontlines (so to speak.) They view the conflict from a military perspective. This is not the only legitimate view of the war, as Ackerman explains:
Front-line experience, however, can’t definitively speak to the broader question of how a war is going overall. This is especially true in a counterinsurgency, where conditions vary across the country. “For attacks to be down [in Baghdad] may not mean anything,” explains Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and international relations professor at Boston University. “It’s indicative of the enemy adjusting, probably, and shifting attacks elsewhere. There’s been an increase of violence in Diyala, with all that implies. It doesn’t necessarily mean the surge is failing, but we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that positive indicators in Baghdad mean the surge is succeeding.”
Soldiers may see that their unit is accomplishing its objectives and feel a boost in morale. They may search a house and find a weapons cache, for instance, or they may track down a crucial member of a terrorist cell and take him into custody. Frustratingly, as obvious and long as the list of tactical successes may be, absent dramatic political improvements they rarely coalesce on their own into a change in a counterinsurgency’s overall fortunes. And these aren’t questions soldiers can afford to concern themselves with. “Once you’re engaged, eyeball to eyeball, you tend not to think about those strategic issues at all. You’re trying to shoot and shoot back,” says retired General Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and Vietnam veteran. “Your entire focus becomes tactical.”
That of course doesn't mean that soldiers don't understand the strategic implications of the war. Rather, their personal experience offers some sort of counter-balance to the dire news that you and I see everyday. Unfortunately, repeated successes on the local level cannot translate into a defeated insurgency. Why? Because there aren't enough soldiers to go around; every group of insurgents driven off, every cache of weapons seized, every captured terrorist leader, will only be replaced by one, or two, or five or ten more of the same. Were we to persist in the war in Iraq for another five years, our soldiers would probably score success after success, and we'd only be further away from peace and stability.
Unfortunately, thanks to the Republican Party's complete abrogation of its duty to execute a responsible national security policy while in power, Democrats are now in the position of having to end a war that most troops are not ready to concede is over. And so there are a couple of things that bear remembering:
All of this leads to a simple point: while the perspective of those fighting the war needs to inform any debate, it can’t determine that debate. “We don’t hire front-line soldiers to make strategic judgments,” says Jeffrey Record of the Air War College. “The larger political issues here are well beyond the visibility and responsibility of individual soldiers and even battalion commanders.”
...Democrats have made the decision—rightly, I think—that withdrawing from Iraq is the least bad of many bad options. But they shouldn’t kid themselves into thinking that a majority of the troops doing the fighting agree with them. For soldiers like Lieutenant Wellman, this will be hard to accept. As he told me of war doubters back home, “I don’t want them to just support the troops. I want them to support the mission.” This matters, because pretending that in ending the war they’re doing the troops a favor hurts Democrats politically. They risk looking condescending, and, worse, oblivious—which has the broader effect of undermining public trust in the Democrats to handle national security. More basically, it does a disservice to those who serve. For soldiers who are optimistic, being told that the war can’t be won is bad enough. But to be told that politicians are doing them a favor by extricating them from a mission they believe in is downright insulting.
Democrats would do much better to speak honestly: to acknowledge that many fighting men and women want to stay in the battle and would be willing to do so for years longer. There’s nothing wrong with saying that, nor in emphasizing that this is part of what makes us so proud of our military. We wouldn’t want soldiers who were unwilling to fight to the bitter end. Elected officials, however, have to judge what they believe to be in the national interest, and that means calling an end to the occupation of Iraq.
And so Democrats should. Talking about "supporting the troops" by ending the war isn't going to work, because most of the troops don't want that kind of support, and it's just a silly reversal of a silly statement without substance. Many Democratic politicians feel genuine anguish over the soldiers who have died or been grievously wounded by this war, and there's nothing wrong with talking about that anguish. But at the same time, Democrats should not try to pass themselves off as the "real" party of "the troops" because it's not true. Democrats should applaud the willingness of the troops to continue to fight at great cost to themselves, but they should also be forthright in saying that despite the heroics of our troops, there's nothing left that they can do in Iraq to defeat the insurgency or tamp down the ever-growing civil war. Democrats cannot hope to be taken seriously on the issue of national security again by either the public or the troops if the only policy they become known for is full withdrawal for the sake of the troops...nor would they deserve to be taken seriously if that's all they had to say. Principled arguments are being made everday by Democrats for why the current mission needs to change, and what alternatives to that mission we should engage in. That's the right approach to take, so long as Democrats avoid condescending to our soldiers in the field.