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Petraeus’ Report Will Provide New Context for Fall Debate

Gen. David Petraeus has a Herculean task ahead of him. A few days from now, he must go before a room full of Democratic Congressional skeptics, many of whom have an end point for the war — getting out — but no strategy for what happens next. [IMGCAP(1)]

He must report on the status of the troop “surge” to a Democratic majority that is increasingly divided over the war and under pressure from its base to act. Their presidential candidates have moved further to the left, taking up the anti-war gauntlet. At the same time, their Capitol Hill leadership is rightly concerned about losing more conservative Blue Dog Democrats to the administration’s war position if Petraeus offers up a positive report.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told, “I think there would be enough support in that group to want to stay the course and if the Republicans were to stay united as they have been, then it would be a problem for us.”

That’s what Petraeus is facing — progress in Iraq is a “problem” because Democrats might be unable to maintain their unified opposition to the war. It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario playing out with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on the Congressional hot seat in the middle of World War II, but generals understand that inevitably war and politics are inseparable, especially in this post-Vietnam War era.

With the Iraq hearings scheduled for the week after Labor Day, the traditional official kickoff of the presidential campaign, the Petraeus report will create the first contextual reality of the 2008 presidential election. Interestingly, it won’t be the candidates of either party or even the media creating the framework for the campaign’s most important issue — national security.

Instead, a four-star general will define the starting point for serious debate not only on the battle for Iraq but also on the larger issue — the war against radical Islam. The American people are ready to listen to both sides. For the past three months, the issue of the surge strategy has been put on hold, or at least almost, awaiting the Petraeus report. Most Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have urged patience to give the troop increase time to work.

To placate their increasingly critical base, however, Democrats made several unsuccessful attempts this summer to defeat President Bush’s anti-terror policies. They took on Bush over the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program to track terrorist phone calls and lost. Senate Democrats also tried to defund the war and lost.

As their legislative efforts were failing, Democratic leaders made two other misjudgments. First, they believed that the unpopularity of the Iraq War would see a groundswell of anti-war activity over the summer. It didn’t happen.

Instead, members of their own party began returning from trips to Iraq with positive reports at odds with the party line. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a staunch opponent of the war, changed his mind about withdrawal after an August visit. He wrote in an opinion piece in The Seattle Times, “I am convinced by the evidence that the situation has at long last begun to change substantially for the better.”

Scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, hardly supporters of the war, shocked Democratic sensibilities when they penned an opinion piece for The New York Times after going to Iraq titled, “A War We Just Might Win.”

A second mistake made by Democratic leaders on the Hill was one of arrogance. With Bush’s job-approval numbers having sunk to the low 30s and the war as unpopular as ever, they assumed their high job approval was a given. By the end of August, with their numbers below Bush’s, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) could only snipe to the Post, “you have to keep in mind Republicans care more about catching Democrats than catching terrorists.”

Summer’s over; and to borrow a phrase, it’s time to move on. The Petraeus report will provide the new political context for the fall debate. But as the partisan back-and-forth over war strategy moves to a more serious level, it’s important to remember that the various players in this debate look at the war issue from very different horizons at this moment.

The president and Hill Republicans and Democrats view events through a 15- to 17-month window. But the presidential candidates of both parties who seek to be the next commander in chief must see farther down the road, a four- or even eight-year perspective. Their assessment of the Petraeus report’s implications for the battle of Iraq and the larger war against radical Islam must reflect a longer lens.

The American people want more than criticism of the war and the president from Democrats. If the Democratic candidates will pull the troops from Iraq as they have promised, voters want to know where and how they will defeat the forces of terrorism. Does former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) really believe this is a “bumper sticker” war? Would Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) actually invade Pakistan? Just what does Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) believe when it comes to the war?

Voters also want to know what Republican candidates would do to win the war over the long term. How will they handle Iran? What would they do with Guantanamo Bay? What about the privacy issues raised by Bush’s anti-terrorism policies? Because of their longer perspective, Republican candidates likely will put different emphasis on the answers to these questions than would Bush.

Homeland security, defense, foreign policy and the war — no matter how you phrase the question, these issues are people’s top concerns as the nation waits to hear from its battlefield general. When Petraeus comes before Congress, he will do much more than just survive a partisan grilling or even save the surge. His assessment will shape the political debate during the all-important pre-primary season and perhaps help pick a president.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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