Americans continue to see Iraq as the most important problem facing the United States. However, attitudes about Iraq are dramatically skewed by Party affiliation.
A recent poll asked Americans for their views about the U.S. military effort in Iraq. 32 percent of the respondents identified as Democrats, 32 percent as Independents, and 27 percent as Republicans. Members of the President's Party were more likely to see signs of progress than were Democrats and Independents: 67 percent of Republicans felt the "U.S. is making progress in defeating the insurgents," while only 16 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of Independents shared this sentiment. 59 percent of Republicans believed President Bush's troop surge is making things better in Iraq, but only 11 percent of Democrats and 30 percent of Independents shared this feeling.
Thirteen months before the Presidential election, the views of Republicans and Democrats are 180 degrees apart. This divergence is reflected on four key issues that determine U.S. Iraq policy.
Relationship to the War on Terror: The Bush Administration and the leading Republican candidates for President regard Iraq as the cornerstone battle in the "war" on terror: On August 22nd, President Bush argued, "If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened... if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. And that is why, for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America."
Democrats do not see Iraq as the central front in the war on terrorism. They believe American forces should focus on the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the leaders of Al Qaeda have taken sanctuary. In their March 2006 position paper on National Security Democrats argued the Administration doesn't understand the decentralized nature of the terrorist threat. "Osama bin Laden and key members of Al Qaeda remain at large [and] continue to win new converts and are planning to carry out devastating attacks against America and our allies."
Nature of the Current Conflict: Regardless of the original rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Republicans claim it has become a hotbed of Islamic extremism. In his September 13th speech about Iraq, President Bush mentioned Al Qaeda twelve times. The notion that terrorists might gain a foothold in Iraq and use it as a base from which to launch attacks against the U.S. mainland is a central feature of Republican rhetoric.
In contrast, Democrats describe the Iraqi conflict as a "civil war." They emphasize the position of the Iraq Study Group, a non-partisan body: "There is no action that the American military can take that, by itself, can bring about success in Iraq."
Troop levels: The difference in perspective on the nature of the conflict in Iraq explains why Republicans and Democrats have vastly different perspectives on force levels. Hiding behind the recent report of Commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, President Bush claimed it is still possible to "win" in Iraq. Therefore, he plans to maintain approximately the same force levels - 15 to 20 brigades - for the duration of his Presidency. Republicans see the war as a long-scale engagement and advocate an open-ended commitment.
In contrast, Democrats want withdrawal to begin immediately, although the leading Democratic Presidential candidates differ on the pace of disengagement and the number of residual forces that will remain in Iraq. On September 12th, Senator Barack Obama promised if he were elected President he would withdraw combat brigades at the rate of one or two per month.
Iraqi Governance: If, as the Iraq Study Group maintained, it is not possible to have a military solution in Iraq, then there must be some sort of effective central government. While the Bush Administration initially agreed to put pressure on the government of Nouri al-Maliki, in the past several months they have backed away from this stance. One day after President Bush spoke to Americans citing military progress in Iraq, the White House quietly released a congressionally-mandated status report that showed little evidence of political progress. The Administration's current position appears to be that the U.S. military will run Iraq indefinitely.
Democrats insist there is no reason for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq to police a civil war. They argue that a firm schedule for withdrawal should motivate Iraqi leaders to put more energy into developing a stable government. Democrats support increased use of regional diplomacy, as well as involvement of the United Nations, in order to foster an effective government,
It's apparent that President Bush and the Republican Party will stay the course in Iraq and maintain current troop levels. Meanwhile, the majority of the American public see the war as a "mess" and 54 percent favor withdrawal, believe the "U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible." Over the next 13 months, it's likely that Iraq will remain America's most important concern and this issue will launch a Democratic landslide on November 4th, 2008.