Domestic US responses to President George W Bush’s call to send 21,500 more US troops to Iraq are partly being driven by the 2008 US presidential campaign. It is another reason the military "surge" policy is unlikely to earn the US anything more than a few months respite.
The Bush administration believes a new flood of US troops will bring an end to Sunni-Shia violence at least in Baghdad. There is strong evidence that wherever US troops have been stationed in force, such violence has moderated.
The problem: You can’t have all US troops in all the Iraqi hotspots all the time. At some point the US troops have to go and put out fires elsewhere, at which point the locals will go back to butchering each other.
While there is no doubt Bush is desperate to show Iraq is at least a mitigated disaster, calling for a surge has an additional advantage. If it is blocked by the new, Democratically-controlled US Congress, the surge could partly neutralize Iraq as an electoral handicap for Republicans.
The Democrats, having seized both houses of Congress in November, feel Iraq could be their ticket to winning a political grand slam. Bush is history, but since none of the front-running Republican candidates support a troop withdrawal, Democrats believe Iraq could be the means to grab the White House as well.
In particular, the Republican front-runner Senator John McCain has been a long advocate of sending "substantial and sustained" flows of more US troops to Iraq. McCain also voted for the Iraq invasion.
However, attempting to block the surge has political risks for the Democrats. The party’s left and centre wings are clearly divided over the circumstances under which the US should withdraw troops from Iraq.
The left, whose most vocal representative is presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama, wants a fixed timeline for withdrawal, irrespective of the conditions in Iraq. Obama said of Bush’s surge policy, "The US cannot baby sit a civil war."
The centre, whose ranks include Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, are wary of a withdrawal that would look like a US military rout.
Populists like Obama and Senator John Edwards are using Iraq to undermine Clinton – who initially voted for the Iraq invasion and does not call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
Their attacks are having some success: polls last month showed Clinton falling to fourth place among Democratic candidates in Iowa, a state whose vote will kick off the presidential race. She is neck-and-neck with Obama in another early bird state, New Hampshire. Her national standing, says pollster John Zogby, has dropped to less than 50 per cent. Clinton was noticeably silent in a week when Iraq policy has dominated policy debate in the US.
Mainstream Democratic leaders fear this internal battle over Iraq will hurt their party in the long run. For one thing, the intra-party debate could end up giving them a presidential candidate who is too far to the left to win the national vote. For another, the debate over the surge could blunt Democratic ability to use Iraq as a policy weapon against Republicans.
Democratic leaders like Senator Ted Kennedy, for example, are calling for the Congress to block Bush from sending troops. This could allow Republicans to paint the Democrats as the "party of defeat" or the party that is abandoning US troops when they are at war. More importantly, it would allow surge supporters like McCain to claim they had a winning solution but the Democrats never allowed them to try it.
In the short term, the Democrats seem to hold all the cards. Polls show that 70 per cent of Americans opposed the surge plan. More importantly, it is the Republicans who are showing more internal splits than the Democrats. Each day sees a handful of Republicans come out against the surge policy. Democratic congressional leaders are likely to hold lengthy hearings on the Iraq war to further isolate Bush.
Even then, rather than an outright foreign policy clash with the White House, they will try to smother the troop increase in legislative procedure. As one of the Democratic House leaders, James Clyburn said, "21,500 troops ought to have 21,500 strings attached to them."
History of Surge
Previous US troop increases in Iraq have had only temporary results. There are presently between 135,000 to 140,000 US troops in Iraq.
1. May 2004 Violence in Fallujah and around Najaf ends a US troop withdrawal and sees numbers increase to 138,000.
2. December 2004 Troops increased from 140,000 to 150,000 in preparation for January elections in Iraq.
3. October 2005 Iraqi constitutional vote sees US troops upped from 138,000 to 140,000.
4. December 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections sees US increase troops from 138,000 to 160,000.
5. July 2006 Baghdad violence makes US increase troops from 127,000 to 150,000. Fail to stem violence.