Home-Front Battles Over a Faraway War
Washington is emptying out for August, but all sides are working overtime to influence the coming debate on Iraq
It seems like just another sleepy summer in Washington. Members of Congress were eager to begin their monthlong recess. Many in the bureaucracy, the lobbying corps, and the media cleared out for some R&R. And President Bush was checking Internet reports on the weather in Crawford, Texas, as he prepared to begin his annual August vacation, chopping cedar and mountain biking at his ranch.
But behind the scenes, it's anything but business as usual. The reason? The looming political showdown over the Iraq war. The issue will take center stage this fall after a mid-September report on conditions in Iraq from Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces there, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top civilian official.
All sides are gearing up. White House strategists are mapping an aggressive PR blitz to win over skeptical legislators and voters. The antiwar movement will be similarly busy. And the small army of presidential candidates will be making their own pitcheswith most of the Republicans in favor of Bush's policy, all the Democrats against itto best position themselves for the nomination. "It's going to be a holy war all autumnand maybe right through to Christmas," says a former senior official in the Reagan White House who informally advises the Bush administration.
Key decisions. But really, the fight has already begun. Even the normally reclusive Vice President Dick Cheney jumped into the fray. In an interview with CNN's Larry King, he compared Bush to iconic leaders of the past. "If you looked simply at public opinion, for example, a lot of the key decisions in our history would never have been pursued or followed through on," Cheney said. "Washington never would have carried through for seven years of the Revolution. Abraham Lincoln would never have stayed with it in order to win the Civil War."
The antiwar movement, which sees the conflict as a historic blunder, has announced plans to turn up the heat on Republican legislators. As those lawmakers return home for the August recess, 60 of them will face protests at their district offices, and some will be trailed by demonstrators. "The tide has turned," says Kate Snyder, field director of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, "and members must feel a sense of accountability for their votes.... They will either protect America or protect George Bush."
Hardened. Opponents of the war point out that most voters now believe the conflict was a mistake and that the United States should begin withdrawing troops. And Democratic strategists say those views have hardened. A mid-July CBS News/New York Times poll showed that 74 percent of respondents felt U.S. efforts in Iraq were going "somewhat badly" or "very badly," compared with 25 percent who felt they were proceeding "very well" or "somewhat well." Says Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who advises Sen. Barack Obama: "You're not going to move public opinion on Iraq."
But that won't stop all sides from trying. Princeton historian Julian Zelizer says it is part of a long American tradition. "Both sides of a war always use PR," says Zelizer, citing the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars, as a succession of presidents sought to build support and their opponents pushed back hard. But Zelizer adds that today, "events in Iraq are much more powerful" than any propaganda from either side.