Republicans playing same game with Iraq

August 14, 2006|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- There they go again.

Hoping for a reprise of the 2002 and 2004 elections, when they rolled over Democrats by claiming they were soft on terrorism, leading Republicans are once again portraying the invasion of Iraq as brilliant, denouncing their critics as traitors and claiming anything less than enthusiastic support for "staying the course" is tantamount to saddling up with al-Qaida.

Recently, GOP heavyweights used the victory of anti-war political novice Ned Lamont over three-term incumbent Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, in last week's Democratic primary - Mr. Lieberman had remained a staunch defender of the war - to portray the Democrats as a bunch of America-hating wimps.

With so many Republican incumbents struggling to distance themselves from President Bush and the war, you'd think the GOP leadership would have a qualm or two about that strategy. But if you only know one tune, you sing it.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman says Senator Lieberman's loss means "defeatism and isolation are now Democratic Party orthodoxy."

In 2002, then-U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, defeated incumbent Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat and a Vietnam triple amputee, by questioning his "courage." Mr. Chambliss ran an ad linking Mr. Cleland to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. (Incidentally, Mr. Chambliss, who walks with the brisk stride of a fit man, escaped service in Vietnam with a medical exemption for a bad knee.)

Similarly, President Bush defeated John Kerry two years ago by constantly resurrecting the searing memory of 9/11 and questioning Mr. Kerry's toughness against terrorism. In the months leading up to the election, the Bush administration issued a terror alert about once a week. Oddly, there have been precious few terror alerts in the 2 1/2 years since Mr. Bush's re-election; the most stringent of those resulted from plots carried out or interrupted in Britain.

This time around, the GOP leadership is going to have a much more difficult time painting Democrats as cut-and-run, bed-wetting pantywaists, because Republicans want to leave Iraq, too. In June, Republicans staged a for-the-cameras debate on the floor of the House, where they insisted U.S. troops must "stay the course." Rep. Gil Gut- knecht, a Minnesota Republican, upbraided any who thought otherwise: "Members, now is not the time to go wobbly," he declared.

But last month, Mr. Gutknecht returned from a visit to Iraq with a bleak assessment of the war and called for at least a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops. "Baghdad is worse today than it was three years ago," he said, adding, "All of the information we receive sometimes from the Pentagon and the State Department isn't always true."

Really? The voters had figured that out. A poll conducted for CNN this month by Opinion Research Corp. shows that 60 percent of Americans oppose the Iraq war, the highest number since the invasion began in March 2003. Sixty-one percent favor withdrawal of some U.S. troops by the end of the year.

On Thursday, President Bush used the news of a thwarted plot involving aircraft bound for the United States from Great Britain as a "stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists." That is certainly true. But the president forfeited the moral authority to lead that war when he misled the American people about Saddam Hussein and his connection to those Islamic fascists, especially al-Qaida. The war he led us into has set off shock waves throughout the Middle East that will roil the region for years to come.

The damage is done - even if we start withdrawing U.S. troops tomorrow.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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