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Iraq Versus the “War on Terror”: How Democrats Can Separate the Issues, and Win Both

During the first flush of the Democratic "No, really, we are serious about national security" counterattack last week (see Greg Sargent for a refresher if you’ve forgotten), Karl Rove an anonymous "top GOP strategist" made a revealing admission to the Washington Post :

The strategist, who is involved in GOP efforts to capitalize on the issue of national security, said one of the big challenges in the months ahead will be "making sure the terrorism issue sticks to Iraq." With some GOP candidates distancing themselves from Bush’s Iraq policy, the strategist said, it has been difficult marrying the issues of terrorism and Iraq. This is disturbing to top GOP officials because support for the war is low, and dropping, and Iraq is a bigger issue in many of the campaigns than the less-defined effort against terrorism, the strategist said. 

 Well, guess what, Karl… if you want to avoid an ulcer, you’d better not have checked the New York Times this morning:

Americans increasingly see the war in Iraq as distinct from the fight against terrorism, and nearly half believe President Bush has focused too much on Iraq to the exclusion of other threats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. The poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed saw no link between the war in Iraq and the broader antiterror effort, a jump of 10 percentage points since June.

And you may want to skip turning on CNN, too, Karl, ’cause their latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed similar results:

Most Americans, according to the poll, seem to have separate opinions about the war in Iraq and terrorism, with more than half (52 percent) saying the war in Iraq is a distraction from the U.S. efforts against terrorists who want to attack targets inside the United States.

A smaller percentage, 44 percent, said the war in Iraq "is an essential part" of U.S. efforts against terrorists who want to attack targets inside the United States.

Yikes!  I guess that airport security scare you guys cooked up kinda backfired, Karl.  You thought it was going to make people fear for their lives and run to Strong Daddy for protection, but what it really did was make them wonder what good all those damn troops in Iraq are doing if the next terrorist attack could from Great Britain as easily as anywhere else. 

I think there were a couple of subconscious repercussions as well.  Even if the in-flight bomb scare turns out to be grossly overhyped, there at least seemed to be a decent level of competence involved in the surveillance and arrests — something that hasn’t been anywhere in evidence in Iraq.  In fact, the inept, self-defeating nature of just about everything we’ve done in that war is so overwhelming that who could blame anyone in the GOP base with a significant fear of terrorism for wanting to separate the two issues psychologically?  After all, if Iraq is central to the War on Terror™, and things are slipping out of control in Iraq… well, that’s kind of a scary thought, isn’t it?

You can almost feel this kind of angst in the recent Washington Post story on how Republicans are losing the support of "security moms":

Married mothers said in interviews here that they remain concerned about national security and the ability of Democrats to keep them safe from terrorist strikes. But surveys indicate Republicans are not benefiting from this phenomenon as they have before. . . . Jean Thomas, a married mother of one, said she still feels a pang of fear every time she boards an airplane for work travel around the Midwest. "Terrorism," she said, "is the biggest concern on a daily basis."

But she said she is "pretty frustrated with politics driving decisions" in Washington. That is why she said she is strongly considering abandoning her support of Republicans to vote for the Democrats challenging Rep. Deborah Pryce and Sen. Mike DeWine on Nov. 7.

. . . Jo Ann Smith, a divorced mother in Upper Arlington, said she voted for Pryce last time but certainly will not this fall because of the war issue alone. "I am just totally disgusted with this war," Smith said. "I understand terrorism and the threat, but I am sick of hearing about it." Smith said she will vote for Democrats across the board, mostly because she considers Republicans the "worst of two evils."

. . . Marylee McCallister, a mother of three who was a Republican for 42 years until this April . . . voted for Bush because she believed his warnings that the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), would weaken the nation. "I was dumb," she said. "Now, granted, they came here and rammed bombs into us, but I am afraid we have gotten into something full scale which perhaps did not have to be."

The themes are clear — like the rest of us, these Bush voters feel like terrorism has been used as a political sledgehammer, and they know that Dubya is in way over his head in Iraq.  But they also know that September 11th wasn’t just a movie, and they’re personally frightened of it happening again.

With all due respect to Pachachutec’s ground-breaking (and wingnut-infuriating) work in debunking the War on Terror™ meme, I think there’s an opportunity here for Democrats to turn it to their advantage.  These "security moms" and other prospective voters like them are ready to jump into the Democratic column, and we can help them be more comfortable with that leap if we reassure them there isn’t really a trade-off… they can get a realistic, adult way of extracting the U.S. from Iraq, and be safer against terrorism.  

Here are some talking points I’d suggest to get that message across, permanently splitting the idea that we need to "win" in Iraq from the goal of protecting Americans from another major terrorist attack:

  1. A BETTER WAY:  When Republicans want to talk about the war in Iraq as being essential in the fight against terrorism, their standard rhetorical trick is to contrast "staying the course" versus doing nothing.  Why not flip that around, and make it a choice of their approach versus any other response:

    "We’re close to losing as many American lives in Iraq as we lost on September 11th.  We didn’t have to lose them; it was the result of a choice by this administration.  They said, given September 11th, this is what we have to do.  Were they right?  Is having nearly 1,000 Americans a year die in Iraq the best way to defend this country?

    If you think we could have gone a better way — and I think it’s obvious we could have — then maybe, just maybe, there’s a better way to defend the U.S. than staying in Iraq forever the way the president wants us to."

    Normally, this technique is referred to as "making the perfect the enemy of the good."  In this case, though, it’s more like making anything the enemy of the abysmally stupid.  The underlying question is:  Do you want the people whose bad judgment got us bogged down in Iraq running the country unchecked for the next two years?

  2. LEAVING US VULNERABLE:  Another bit of propaganda the Bushites have used repeatedly to justify the war in Iraq (and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon) is that we can’t afford to ignore the Middle East, letting local resentments build and used to fuel anti-American extremism.  But even by his own standards, Dubya has made us more vulnerable on this score — how can anyone look at the rubble of Lebanon, and Iraq in flames, with tens of thousands of Arabs chanting "Death to America" in demonstrations, and not expect that hatred to spill over onto our shores someday?  We need to respond in a way that lessens the rage, rather than increasing it.
  3. NO TIME TO WASTE:  Democrats can demonstrate that not only do we care about terrorism as much as anyone, we view it as a more urgent concern than the Republicans.  If they try to trot out the line (favored by VP Dick Cheney) about it being "no accident" that "we haven’t been hit" since September 11th, their gloating is close to complacency — just because we haven’t been hit so far doesn’t mean we won’t be in the near future.  If anything, the purported British plane-bombing plot proves that.

    And to respond to the latest, desperate twist by Dubya — that if "we leave [Iraq] before the mission is done, the terrorists will follow us here" — I’d simply say, I’m afraid that if we keep 150,000 troops in Iraq for the next three to five years, they’re going to beat us here.  If the next terror attack comes from Great Britain, or the Phillippines, or Indonesia, how will it make us safer to have nearly all of our available military strength tied down in Iraq?

Feel free to try these talking points out on the Republicans in your life, or share them with your local progressive friends and allies, and let’s see if we can’t make Democrats the "strong on national security" party… in perception, as well as reality.

(Swopa appears courtesy of Needlenose.)

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Swopa has been sharing prescient, if somewhat anal-retentive, analysis and garden-variety mockery with Internet readers since 1995 or so, when he began debunking the fantasies of Clinton-scandal aficionados on Usenet. He is currently esconced as the primary poster at Needlenose (