America's view of Republicans crumbles in Iraq

February 14, 2007|By THOMAS SCHALLER

According to the latest Gallup survey, Republican self-identification has declined nationally and in almost every American state. Why? The short answer is that President Bush's war of choice in Iraq has destroyed the partisan brand Republicans spent the past four decades building.

That brand was based upon four pillars: that Republicans are more trustworthy on defense and military issues; that they know when and where markets can replace or improve government; that they are more competent administrators of those functions government can't privatize; and, finally, that their public philosophy is imbued with moral authority. The war demolished all four claims.

In uniform or out, Americans think Iraq is a disaster, oppose escalation and blame Mr. Bush and his party for the mess in Mesopotamia. Heading into the 2006 mid-terms, polls showed Republicans trailing Democrats as the party most trusted to handle Iraq and terrorism. Nationally, Mr. Bush's war approval ratings hover around 30 percent.

Military members are skeptical, too. A Military Times poll released in December revealed that only 35 percent of military members approved of the president's handling of the war - despite the fact that 46 percent of them are self-identified Republicans (down from 60 percent in previous Military Times polls) while just 16 percent are Democrats. According to a recent Zogby survey of troops serving in Iraq, 72 percent want American forces home within a year.

Congressional hearings last week on war contracting dispel the second claim. Billions of dollars appropriated for Iraq cannot be accounted for, and contracts have been doled out with limited oversight and little regard for competitiveness.

Robert Greenwald's powerful documentary Iraq for Sale exposes many of the absurdities. You wouldn't sign a three-year, $250,000 lease for a vehicle you could buy outright for $50,000, but our government does. The "cost-plus" procurement protocol pays contractors a fixed percentage on top of whatever they spend, encouraging them to spend as much and as inefficiently as possible. So rather than vehicles with minor mechanical damage being repaired, many are junked in favor of expensive replacements.

Meanwhile, the same troops Mr. Bush brags he will do "whatever it takes" to support often wait in two-hour chow lines, or shower in bacteria-contaminated water. "The hearings and the introduction of legislation, while long overdue, will begin to have an immediate effect on those who have been ruthless and relentless in their profiteering," Mr. Greenwald says hopefully.

As for the third pillar - superior management skills - there's insufficient space on this page to revisit the myriad blunders made by America's civilian leaders.

Little foresight was given to post-invasion scenarios. Disbanding the Iraqi army was an early, colossal mistake. We had too few troops there, as L. Paul Bremer III, former civilian administrator of Iraq, later admitted. And the torture policies on view at Abu Ghraib gave terrorists a fantastic recruiting tool.

Notice, too, how management "success" has been steadily defined downward: from disarming an unarmed Saddam Hussein, to bringing liberation and democratization, to establishing basic security, to avoiding a domestic civil war, to "holding and clearing" Baghdad, to the current goal of preventing a regional conflagration that wouldn't be imminent had we not gone to Iraq in the first place. Talk about the soft bigotry of low - and lowering - expectations.

Finally, there is the war's morality. In what moral system is it justified to wage a war without paying for it? Mr. Bush tormented Sen. John Kerry in 2004 for "voting for before voting against" funding the war. But Mr. Kerry voted for a version of the $87 billion appropriation bill that also raised revenues to pay for it. Instead, we pile the war's costs atop our mountainous national debt, leaving future generations to pay for it later - plus interest.

The administration is asking for another $245 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan - an amount that, were it set aside and allowed to accrue interest, could pay the entire budget of a mid-size state like Maryland for almost a decade. This sum, too, will be added to America's giant credit card bill - an act of moral cowardice from the same White House that gives lectures about the sanctity of marriage and embryonic stem cells.

The Iraq war's human consequences abroad are far more tragic than any impact they are having on partisan politics at home. But for Republicans, the last casualty of Mr. Bush's war of choice may be the party itself.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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