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Democrats Raise Bar for Judging Bush Win in Iraq

Military victory in Iraq should give President Bush a political boost, but it’s also likely to unify fractious Democrats around two messages — what really count are the war’s aftermath and the U.S. economy. [IMGCAP(1)]

Polls indicate that success in the war has increased national support for the conflict itself to around 75 percent. But Bush’s overall approval ratings have risen only into the mid-60s, well short of the 80s and 90s he registered after the September 2001 terrorist attacks and his father scored after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

An Ipsos/Cook Political Report poll published this week showed that Bush’s approval rating on the economy at just 55 percent.

Forty-six percent of voters said they would definitely vote to re-elect Bush, while 31 percent said they’d definitely vote against him and 20 percent said they’d consider doing so.

Bush’s numbers should get better as Iraqi military resistance ceases, caches of weapons of mass destruction are discovered and Iraqis cheer coalition forces as liberators.

But, Democratic Party pros see a parallel developing to Bush’s father, who lost the 1992 election because of a weak economy despite winning the Gulf War.

And almost all Democrats — those who supported the Iraq war and those who opposed it — are united in raising the bar that Bush has to jump before the Iraq enterprise can be judged a success.

They say he has to secure the peace, preferably by internationalizing the post-war Iraqi reconstruction effort, repair torn relations with U.S. allies, refocus on Arab-Israeli diplomacy and pay attention to challenges presented by North Korea, Iran, Syria and terrorist groups.

The requirements are being laid down by Democratic presidential candidates and even by Congressional backbenchers such as the three leaders of a new Democratic Study Group on National Security just named by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

The three, Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.), Adam Schiff (Calif.) and David Scott (Ga.), all support the war. Israel and Schiff identify themselves as “Scoop Jackson Democrats” after the Cold War hawk, Sen. Henry Jackson (Wash.). Scott said he’s an admirer, too, of Secretary of State Colin Powell and former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young.

“We recognize that, on Iraq, our Caucus is divided and that our study group can’t heal the division,” Schiff said in a joint interview. “Prospectively, we want to develop smart, strong, credible alternatives to what the administration is producing.”

The study group, with the ranking members on the Armed Services, International Relations and Intelligence committees serving as advisers, will provide a forum for Members not on those committees to learn about key foreign policy issues.

On Iraq, according to Scott, “We may have won the war basically alone, but we can’t rebuild the region without allies and friends and we’ve got to bring around countries that weren’t with us in the beginning.” He said that there should be a “role for France and Germany,” though “not at the head of the line.”

It’s almost unanimous among Democratic presidential candidates, too, that Bush needs to internationalize the postwar effort and avoid seeming to be Iraq’s “occupier.”

Before and during the war, the candidates have been deeply at odds. Pro-war candidates like Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and John Edwards (N.C.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) have been subjected to catcalls from anti-war liberals.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has made himself into a contender for the nomination by militantly opposing the war and jabbing at rivals, notably Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), who supported it in Congress but fudged on the campaign trail.

In a speech prepared for delivery in Washington on Wednesday, Dean set the new tone for Democrats to use in judging Bush’s success in Iraq. “We must hold the administration to its promises before the war,” he said, “and create a world after the war that is safer, more democratic, and more united in winning the larger struggle against terrorism and the forces that breed it.”

He said that “the administration’s plan for the Pentagon to administer Iraq is a disaster” and he said that “overall civilian authority should be transferred to an international body approved by the U.N. Security Council.”

From the opposite side of the original war issue, Lieberman said on Feb. 26 that “appointing an American civilian administrator would be a critical mistake” and “could put America in the position of an occupying power, not a liberator.” Lieberman favors an international administrator, though not one appointed by the United Nations.

It may be that the new fault line among Democrats will be over the extent that they’d allow France, Russia and Germany to have a veto over administration of Iraq after the war.

In late March, according to Republican pollster David Winston, Republicans had a huge edge over Democrats, 58 percent to 27 percent, as the party the public trusts to handle national defense and foreign policy.

To the extent that Democrats rely on the United Nations to determine U.S. foreign policy, those numbers are not likely to change.

It would also help Democrats if, before challenging Bush to make Iraq into paradise, they heartily cheered the overthrow of one of the world’s most evil dictators.

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