Cut-and-Run Boomerang

Bush’s political speech undermines his diplomacy.

This week George Bush jacked up his rhetoric on Iraq, charging that “the Democratic party is the party of cut and run.” We’ve heard this accusation before from Republicans, but usually the commander in chief only hints at it, leaving the more direct formulation to political operatives or at least his vice president (for some, that’s a distinction without a difference).

The cut-and-run phrase is an effective political weapon. It’s pithy and plays on the public perception that Democrats are weak on issues of national security. The Democrats also can’t agree about what to do in Iraq, so they can’t fight back effectively.

It is also a very dumb phrase. It diminishes the debate by suggesting all options are crystal clear. It poisons the dialogue by angering those reasonable Democrats in Congress who are searching for a middle ground and by freezing those Republicans who want to offer constructive criticism but can’t for fear they’ll be accused of wanting to cut and run. As one Republican congressman put it recently: “Reality has been suspended for a moment. Republicans cannot speak out publicly on this issue right now.”

Bush has avoided this particular “cut and run” construction because it dilutes the special rhetorical authority of his office. He remains at least a little above the fray, in the hopes that people will pay special attention to his words. That he is now resorting to the blunt catchphrases of midday cable news debates is perhaps the final admission that his loftier speeches have not worked. Or perhaps Bush was just trying to be heard this week. Mark Foley’s heavy breathing by BlackBerry consumed a lot of news cycles. Maybe Bush should have talked about Iraq by IM to get heard.

But the most important reason the president shouldn’t use any formulation of the “cut and run” language is that withdrawing from Iraq is part of his strategy. Secretary of State Rice just made a surprise visit to Iraq, and her message to Iraqi leaders had a hard truth at its core: If you don’t make more progress faster, we’re out of here. American Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad uses this stick in his negotiations every day. President Bush told Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, last month ”that the United States of America stands with them, so long as the government continues to make the tough choices necessary for peace to prevail.” Mr. Talabani might have asked the president what the United States of America would do if the Iraqis don’t make those tough choices. Will the United States cut and run?

White House officials argue a distinction: Their negotiating tactics put pressure on the Iraqis without sending a signal to the insurgents that their brutality is working. That’s too nuanced for me. The argument against Democratic proposals for a timetable for withdrawal is that insurgents can just wait out the Americans, planning to take over after the date the United States sets for leaving. But if insurgents think that way—and intercepts of their communications suggest they do—then they’re equally capable of designing their strategy around the public pressure Bush administration officials are putting on Iraqi leaders. Insurgents will make the violence impossible for Iraqi leaders to solve, which will lead the United States to conclude those leaders are not making hard choices and pull out. The insurgents will have their victory.

The additional problem with the White House arguing this distinction is that Bush and the Republicans have done their best to blot out nuance. That’s the whole point of the “cut and run” attack—to label all talk of withdrawal as weak appeasement. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin’s proposal for a series of benchmark tests that would lead to withdrawal is not that different from administration policy in Iraq. But no Republican dares admit that in an election year, so they dish out a little more “cut and run” to lump all Democrats together. If Bush is successful, voters will find Levin indistinguishable from Rep. John Murtha who has called for a faster withdrawal and whose claim that “we’ve failed” in Iraq is politically not palatable for most Americans. In the hands of administration officials, withdrawal is a useful tool. Used by others, it is a tragic disaster.

The president may get away with defining withdrawal one way in the political sphere and another way in the diplomatic one. Voters may not see the logical inconsistency. But voters aren’t the only ones watching. The National Intelligence Estimate makes it clear that if the jihadists think they’ve won in Iraq by hastening the U.S. withdrawal, they’ll only grow in power. Spinning victory in this case has serious consequences. Whenever and however the United States leaves, it’s going to have to look like a clear win. The sloppy political talk of “cut and run” limits Bush’s options because he can’t really ever make good on his threat to leave Iraq if he thinks its leaders aren’t making the tough choices. Democrats would be well within their rights to call that cutting and running. Having used the term so recklessly to define all gradations of withdrawal, Bush invites opponents to use it just as recklessly to define his decision to start bringing troops home. Insurgents would find comfort in that debate and think they’d won. Jihadists will find any pretext and think they’ve prevailed even in the moment of their incineration, but the president and others dishing out the accusations of “cut and run” shouldn’t be helping them.