Many Democrats in Congress believe the war in Iraq is irretrievably lost, or that it would redound to their political advantage if it were lost. But they don't want to be blamed for the consequences of defeat.
This has placed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in something of a quandary. The Constitution provides Congress with a means to end the war: Congress can cut off funding. But if Congress were to cut off money for the war in Iraq, and if all the bad things the intelligence community predicts would happen if we withdraw precipitously did happen, it would be pretty clear who was responsible for those bad things. And because it would be pretty clear who was responsible, many queasy Democrats in the House and Senate might not vote to cut off funds, giving the leadership an embarrassing defeat if it moved to do so.
So the Democrats may adopt what's been called the "slow bleed" strategy. Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Johnstown, outlined it last week in an interview with the left wing Web site MoveCongress.org. The strategy would be to impose, through amendments to the defense appropriations bill, so many restrictions on U.S. troops that the president's plan for a surge would be hamstrung.
There are, from the Democrats' perspective, two clever things about the "slow bleed" strategy. The first is that sabotaging the war effort in this way would not be nearly as clear cut as it would be by a vote to cut off funds, thus making it easier to evade blame for the consequences of defeat. The second is that if Congress passes a defense appropriations bill with these restrictions, President Bush would be left with three unpalatable choices: He could sign the bill and accept the restrictions, thus accepting slow defeat in Iraq. He could sign the bill and ignore the restrictions on the grounds that they are an unconstitutional trespass on his powers as commander in chief (which they would be), thus provoking a constitutional crisis. Or he could veto the bill, and thus risk defunding the war himself, should Congress not promptly pass a defense appropriations bill shorn of the restrictions.
Let us set aside for the moment what the "slow bleed" strategy would say about the honesty and character of the Democratic leadership in Congress if it chooses to pursue it and focus on the wisdom, or lack of it, of making the sabotaging of the war effort foremost on the Democratic agenda.
A large majority of Americans are unhappy with the conduct of the war in Iraq, and a majority thinks it was a mistake to go to war with Saddam Hussein in the first place. But recent opinion polls make clear that most Americans still want us to win, and think we can.
Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va. surveyed 800 registered voters Feb. 5-7. By identical margins of 57-41 percent, those polled said Iraq was a key part of the war on terror and that U.S. troops should remain until "the job is done." By 56-43 percent, respondents said Americans should stand behind the president in Iraq because we are at war, and by 53-46 percent they said Democrats were going too far, too fast in pressing the president to withdraw troops.
The newspaper Investors' Business Daily took a poll of 925 adults Feb. 5-11. In that poll, 42 percent of respondents said victory in Iraq was "very important," and 24 percent more said it was "somewhat important." Thirty five percent said they were "very hopeful" the United States would succeed, and 23 percent were "somewhat hopeful."
Although barely begun, the troop surge already is producing positive results. Al-Qaida operatives are reported to be evacuating Baghdad, and Moqtada al Sadr and senior commanders of his Iranian-backed militia, the Mahdi army, are lying low and may have taken refuge in Iran. As a consequence, the number of attacks in Baghdad has declined by 80 percent, the Iraqi defense ministry said last week.
"Although attacks happen here and there, the general feeling is still closer to hope and appreciation of the plan than pessimism," said the Web logger Mohammed Fadhil, writing from Baghdad. "More families are returning to homes they were once forced to leave, and we're talking about some of the most dangerous districts, such as Ghazaliya and Haifa street."
Lying low is by no means the same as being defeated, and it is far too early to tell if the surge will work. But on the evidence to date, there is certainly no reason to strangle the infant in his crib.
When after 40 years the Republicans captured the House of Representatives in 1994, hubris overcame them and they launched a showdown with President Clinton over the budget which marked the start of Mr. Clinton's political comeback. Democratic efforts to cripple the war effort in Iraq could produce a similar backlash in 2008.