Reaching the Tipping Point

September 2005 could go down in history as the month in which Iraq policy finally turned around. By all indications, members of Congress returning to Capitol Hill this week will come back having heard, loud and clear, from their constituents that it's time to end the war in Iraq, victory or no. And it's not just Democrats.

"I've been hearing from a lot of folks on the Hill, from Republicans, who are worried about Iraq," says a former senior state department official. "They're calling me to ask: How long can this go on?" And when members of Congress ask, "how long," they mean: "Can it go on like this until November 2006?"

Public opinion, which began shifting decisively against the Bush administration's Iraq police one year ago, now overwhelmingly favors getting out, and clear majorities now say that the war in Iraq wasn't worth fighting in the first place.

A stunning poll from CNN and USA Today released last week asked voters: "If you could talk with President George W. Bush for 15 minutes about the situation in Iraq, what would you, personally, advise him to do?" Far and away, the answer was: Out now. Forty-one percent picked: "Pull the troops out and come home. End it." Others picked more subtle variations on the same theme: "Come up with and execute a well-thought-out exit strategy" (6 percent); "Join in and work with the United Nations" (3 percent); and "Admit to past mistakes. Apologize" (3 percent), making a total of 53 percent opposed to Bush's stubborn, stick-it-out policy. Only 18 percent picked "Finish what we started," with scattered support for other stay-the-course options.

The mainstream media, while exhibiting a fascination with Cindy Sheehan's brave posture as an outspoken anti-war activist, has not yet caught up with public opinion, either. A Sept. 1 action alert from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) took ABC News to task for its misleading interpretation of poll numbers, which it called "typical" for most media.

But the turn in public opinion is occurring not because the big media has turned against the war (they haven't), but because one by one, town by town, even in the red states, Americans are deciding that staying the course in Iraq is no longer worth the candle. And the most significant factor in the ongoing shift in opinion is the steady drumbeat of obituaries in middle America, as National Guard and reserve troops die fighting in Iraq.

John Warner, R.-Va., one of the Senate's old bulls is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and no neoconservative. As first order of business, Warned has announced plans to drag Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld onto the carpet for hearings on the mess in Iraq. Significantly, Warner warned that public opinion on Iraq is approaching the "tipping point," after which support for the war in Iraq would no longer be sustainable. "The level of concern is, I think, gradually rising," he told The New York Times. "I don't see that the Congress is going to suddenly pull back like in the days of Vietnam. It is the desire of the Congress to continue to work with and support the administration. But there is always a tipping point."

With the last shreds of Bush's credibility as president blown away by Katrina, expect momentum against the president to grow with each further U.S. casualty in Iraq and with piece of bad news about the faltering political process there. During September, the newly muscled anti-war movement will stage rallies, lobby days, and demonstrations in Washington, and Representative Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., plans to join with many other members of Congress to convene independent hearings on exiting Iraq on September 15. From September 24-26, United for Peace and Justice and other groups plan a Vietnam-style mobilization to demand U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. More than 60 members of Congress, including several Republicans, have signed on to the "Out of Iraq Caucus," which calls for the immediate development of an exit strategy.

It is, of course, still remarkable that so many Democratic politicians have yet to jump on the get-out-of-Iraq bandwagon that the public is driving down the highway. As former Sen. Gary Hart has noted, it is a sad commentary on the utter lack of conviction and sheer moral cowardice that has seized much of the Democratic Party.

My guess is that the Democrats are afraid to call for getting out of Iraq in case Iraq should magically stabilize or turn the corner sometime later this year or in 2006. Putting aside the fact that leaving Iraq is the right thing to do, it is far more likely that Iraq will get worse, moving closer to outright civil war, than it will get better.

In any case, Democratic politicians are, by and large, miles behind their constituents on the futility of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Yet with more and more Republicans starting to question the most basic assumptions about the war, with well-publicized anti-war events planned for September, and with several dozen more American body bags likely to be shipped home to small cities and towns across the United States this month, even the most thick-headed Democrat is likely to get the message.

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