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RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Reconciliation needed -- in D.C.

September 12, 2007|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Not for the first time, self-awareness was in short supply across Washington during this week's marathon congressional hearings on Iraq with Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

The one point that drew agreement from Republicans and Democrats alike was that Iraq's political leaders have too often failed to transcend their narrow sectarian interests to forge compromises in the national interest.

Pot, meet kettle.

Here in the U.S., the two parties are doing much the same thing. President Bush and congressional Democrats are each so determined to win the argument over Iraq that they have lost sight of their joint interest in finding a way forward that can attract broad and lasting support from a public disillusioned and dangerously polarized over the war. More than ever, the parties this week structured the debate as if it were an electoral campaign. Each asked Americans to ponder only the pieces of the picture most congenial to its arguments.

Democrats, challenging Petraeus' numbers on the overall trends in violence, downplayed the evidence that the "surge" has improved security where it has been applied -- and, if nothing else, has prevented a downward spiral into full-scale civil war.

The White House and congressional Republicans, celebrating those intermittent security gains, brushed aside the National Intelligence Estimate and the report from the Government Accountability Office documenting the Iraqi government's inability to provide basic services, the continuing doubts about the loyalty and reliability of the Iraqi security forces, and the absence of progress toward the political reconciliation that all sides consider the key to long-term stabilization in Iraq. Petraeus and Crocker, while not ignoring those problems, unduly minimized them too.

Interest groups on the left and right, meanwhile, are doing their best to discourage anyone from bridging this partisan gulf. Conservatives have fired repeated warning shots at Republicans wavering on the war. Freedom's Watch, a new conservative group, is targeting Republican, not Democratic, members of Congress in most of its multimillion-dollar ad campaign urging support for Bush's strategy. And Republicans have surely noticed that both GOP House members most critical of the conflict (Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest and North Carolina's Walter Jones) have already drawn primary challenges from war supporters. (So had Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, the most skeptical GOP senator, before he announced Monday that he was retiring.)

Democrats also face growing pressure for a hard line. The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org chose last weekend to poll its members on whether to finance primary challenges against congressional Democrats "who side with the president on Iraq." And in the days before Petraeus' testimony, liberal websites crackled with outrage that Democratic leaders were considering compromises intended to attract more Republicans to bipartisan Iraq legislation.

Each side's accusations against the other have reached a fevered, destructive pitch. Republicans have recklessly charged that Democrats who support a timetable for withdrawing American troops are setting a "date for surrender." MoveOn.org this week hurt its cause with a spectacularly unseemly newspaper ad attacking Petraeus' credibility.

This is no way to fight a war, or even to end one. For now, congressional stalemate benefits Bush because it means Democrats can't force him to end the surge before he's ready. But the hardening partisan divide is increasingly defining the war as a GOP-only enterprise, and no war can be fought for long as the project of a single political party.

It doesn't have to be this way. More and more leading Democrats are willing to maintain an American force in Iraq (for training, border security and counter-terrorism) after the direct U.S. combat role diminishes. More and more congressional Republicans understand that the U.S. cannot shoulder that front-line combat responsibility indefinitely. The challenge is uniting a critical mass in both parties on a path from today's sprawling American presence to a lesser but more durable role.

Petraeus, with a message that amounted to "stay the course," failed to sketch such a road map. Although he says he would end the surge when it runs out of troops next year (not really much of a concession), he would not commit to further reductions in U.S. forces. In that way, Petraeus' prescription for pacifying Iraq guarantees continuing conflict in the U.S. -- and another election, in 2008, dominated by the war.

Maybe it's too much to ask a general formulating military strategy in a combat zone to also resolve a political impasse at home. But it's not unreasonable to demand that his commander in chief and congressional leaders meet the standards for compromise and reconciliation that they are demanding from a government operating under much greater duress in Iraq. If there is any hope of stabilizing Iraq, not only Iraqis but Americans will need to find strategies that create more common ground, because those are the only strategies that can be sustained.

--

ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

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