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Iraq war to be defining issue in races

Democrats, Republicans both tested

WASHINGTON - The war strategy President Bush laid out to the American people Thursday night ensures that Iraq will remain the defining issue of the 2008 presidential race, with risks for Democrats as well as Republican candidates, political and national security analysts said yesterday.

With Congress unlikely to have the votes to force Bush to significantly change the course of the war, Bush's strategy means the number of US troops in Iraq will almost certainly remain well above 100,000 through the heart of the campaign next summer and fall. And that could spell trouble for both parties.

The Republican candidates, who have lined up behind a deeply unpopular war, will face renewed ire from voters if sectarian violence picks up or political reconciliation remains elusive.

For Democrats, the challenge is how to avoid the trap of talking mostly about cutting the number of US forces in Iraq - and potentially sounding defeatist - rather than focusing the debate on how to keep Iraq from descending into worse chaos or how to win the war on terror.

Most mainstream Americans want out of Iraq, which is a problem for the Republicans, but only if departing doesn't lead to "utter chaos," which is a problem for the Democrats, said Loren B. Thompson, a conservative military analyst who is critical of the war.

"Both of the major parties are in a fix with regard to Iraq, because what the loyal base wants is not what the broader electorate wants," said Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Northern Virginia. "The Democratic base wants out of Iraq as soon as possible, and the Republican base wants to fight and win the war. Frankly, most of America is between those two extremes."

Bush said in his televised address that he would begin a gradual reduction in troops in Iraq to about the level deployed before his "surge" strategy this year. He spoke of an "enduring relationship" between the United States and Iraq, and said success there would require a military presence "beyond my presidency."

In response, Democratic candidates blasted the president for clinging to a failed war strategy that has cost thousands of American lives.

"We must not continue the enormous sacrifice of our troops, our military readiness, our treasury, and our standing in the world just to keep the violence at the same unacceptable levels it was at in 2005 and 2006," Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said in a statement responding to Bush's speech.

Republicans rallied to endorse the strategy as the linchpin of US efforts to fight terrorism and stabilize the Middle East.

"I think people recognized that one thing that's unacceptable to this country is that Iraq would become a safe haven for Al Qaeda or other Jihadist terrorist groups," former governor Mitt Romney said on MSNBC yesterday.

The political risks differ for each party. For Democrats, the message that appeals to their liberal base is all about getting out of Iraq quickly. But that opens them to the charge that they are willing to allow Iraq to devolve into an intractable civil war or became a safe haven for terrorists. Or, at least, that they don't have a clear plan to make sure that doesn't happen.

"Self-defeating may be too strong a word, but the Democratic primary electorate seems to be more focused on the past than the future," said Bruce Schulman, a political historian at Boston University. "What mobilizes the Democratic base of activists is condemning the invasion of Iraq, rather than saying, 'It's done; what next?' "

Indeed, Republicans were increasingly taking advantage of that vulnerability this week. "It seems to me like the Democrats are concentrating on how many troops we can get out and when," former senator Fred Thompson told the New York Times. "My focus is on what we can do to ensure the long-term success in the global war on terror. I think the Democratic position is very shortsighted."

Aides to top Democratic candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton said they have offered detailed visions, not only for ending the war but also stabilizing the fragile nation.

Republicans have little choice during the primary but to identify with the president's strategy, according to the analysts, which became easier this week thanks to the testimony of General David H. Petraeus.

But the coming months could bring developments that would make such support much more problematic, said Rand Beers, who advised John Kerry's presidential campaign on national security after resigning from his position as a counterterrorism adviser to Bush.

For example, if Iraqi political leaders remain intractably at odds, it would be difficult to continue to argue the surge has worked, Beers said. And he noted that the number of US armed services members killed in Iraq will almost inevitably reach the 4,000 mark. The death toll currently stands at 3,780.

In the short term, "the president's announcement puts all of the challenge to the Democrats to come up with an alternative that can pass legislatively," Beers said, referring to efforts by Congressional Democrats to reign in the war. "In the longer term, given the tragedy of events in Iraq, I think the Republicans are worse off."

In an interview with the Globe in Nashua yesterday, Senator John McCain of Arizona said his staunch support for the current US strategy in Iraq comes out of duty, not a sense that it is a political win for him.

"I would much rather be debating other issues and let General Petraeus do his job rather than dragging back to Washington for a couple days of interrogation," McCain said. "It's the Democrats that think this issue is helping them and if you look at public opinion polls there might be something to it."

Sasha Issenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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