The GOP in a Quagmire

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, January 18, 2007; A23

The sense of impending political doom that clutches Republican hearts one week after President Bush presented his new strategy on Iraq to the nation is stoked by the alarming intelligence brought back from Baghdad by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and passed around Capitol Hill.

In a pre-Christmas visit to Iraq, Coleman and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida met with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi government's national security adviser. Coleman described their astounding encounter in a Dec. 19 blog entry: Dr. Rubaie "maintains that the major challenge facing Iraq is not a sectarian conflict, but rather al-Qaeda and disgruntled Baathists seeking to regain power. Both Senator Nelson and I react with incredulity to that assessment. Rubaie cautions against more troops in Baghdad."

Rubaie denied the overriding reality of sectarian violence in Baghdad because his government is tied to the Shiite belligerents in that conflict. While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pays lip service to Bush's demand that he crack down on Mahdi Army commander Moqtada al-Sadr, U.S. officials recognize that Maliki's political support depends on the Shiite militia leader. Thus, Maliki's government is in denial about sectarian conflict. Maliki did not show up for a news conference in which he was scheduled to comment on Bush's new strategy, and he personally remains silent about the plan at this writing.

This hastens the desire of Republicans, who once cheered the Bush Doctrine in the Middle East, to remove U.S. forces from a politically deteriorating condition as soon as possible. "Iraq is a black hole for the Republican Party," a prominent party strategist told me this week. What makes his comments so important is that he is not a maverick Republican in Congress but one of Bush's principal political advisers.

As they adjust to the 2006 election returns, Republicans recognize that this was no isolated bump in the road. The loss of about 320 state legislative seats across the country to the Democrats classifies last year's election as a midrange electoral disaster.

The internal Republican debate concerns how much Iraq contributed to this outcome. The White House and Republican members of Congress who voted for intervention in Iraq contend that many issues led to their defeat: incompetent management of the Hurricane Katrina crisis, widespread cases of corruption and abandonment of spending restraint. But Republicans at the grass roots tell me that Iraq was the central problem and must be erased as an issue.

Former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich, a popular and effective Republican who had nothing to do with Iraq policy, believes his defeat was wholly caused by the war. Republicans in a variety of states -- such as Maryland, New Hampshire, Oregon and Missouri -- blame defeats, down to the local level, on Iraq.

One nationally prominent Republican pollster reported confidentially on Capitol Hill after the president's speech that if at the end of the year U.S. troops are still in Iraq and U.S. blood is still being spilled there, the GOP disaster in 2008 will eclipse 2006. Thus, many Republican members of Congress have tied their hopes to Bush's pledge that Iraqi forces will take over local security by September.

But Republican opposition has intensified rather than diminished since the president's speech. What was whispered privately is now declared publicly. At last week's hearing, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's second-ranking Republican -- Chuck Hagel -- called Bush's new strategy "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

The conservative elite of the House of Representatives, members who had 100 percent positive voting records as measured by the American Conservative Union, gathered Wednesday morning for an ACU breakfast on Capitol Hill. They still talked about "winning" in Iraq and deplored the consequences of "surrendering."

But they do not know how that victory can be achieved if the Iraqi government is tied to the Shiite militias, a political dilemma in Iraq that no increase in U.S. troops can solve. Republicans can only hope that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her sidekick, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, overplay their hands by cutting off funds to U.S. troops in the field. It is a slim hope for now.