WASHINGTON -- The highly partisan question "Who lost Iraq?" will be heard repeatedly in the coming months, historians and political scientists say, as President Bush and a Democratic Congress spar over ending an unpopular war now in its fifth year.Bush's decision to launch military operations to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003 has made the protracted Iraq war the centerpiece of his presidency. Now Democrats who took control of Congress in November are trying to force an end to the war by setting deadlines for all troops to leave Iraq.
If the war ends poorly for U.S. interests and for Iraq, Republicans will have an opening to charge that "cut-and-run'' Democrats, not Bush and their party, were responsible for the defeat. And if Bush's strategy works, the GOP can say Democrats were too quick to call for a withdrawal, the analysts say.
In previous instances over the past six decades, Republicans have repeatedly charged Democrats with dangerous weakness in the face of overseas challenges, sometimes to great political effect, and it's a charge experts expect to hear again, perhaps soon.
"It's worked again and again, and it could again,'' said Ron Peters, University of Oklahoma political scientist.
Assuming Bush's insistence on keeping forces in Iraq means continued U.S. involvement until he leaves office in January 2009, historian Robert Dallek said Bush's possible Democratic successor would be the one to bring home U.S. forces. If a Democrat wins the White House in 2008, "a Democratic president is the one pulling the plug on this, (and) the "D" (for defeat) will be on them.''
"The Republicans will have the chance to hammer the Democrat once again as weak on national defense,'' Dallek said.
But polls show at least 60 percent of U.S. voters agree with Democratic calls for a specific timetable to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq. And only about 35 percent of those surveyed approve of the president's handling of the war.
So, Dallek added, if the war drags on into 2009, the public might be so upset that the Democrats could escape blame for a messy ending.
The charge that Democrats are weak on national defense goes back to the Yalta conference of early 1945, when ailing Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted Soviet control of Eastern Europe as World War II ended. Betrayal, cried his critics, including many Republicans.
FDR's supporters argued that the president had accepted the reality that the vast Red Army already occupied Eastern Europe and couldn't be dislodged except through another war.
In 1949, communists led by Mao Zedong routed the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and took over China, spurring Republican charges that Democratic President Harry Truman and his administration had lost China.
"Without question, the critics had by early 1949 convinced many Americans that Truman was, shockingly, abandoning China, China being equivalent with Chiang's dying order,'' journalist Robert Donovan wrote in his two-volume history of Truman's presidency.
The "who lost China'' debate, in turn, fed anti-Communist sentiment of the 1950s because of the charge that the State Department had been infiltrated by Communists.
As the Vietnam War wound down, Democrats in Congress were trying to cut off funding and bring troops home. In a Vanity Fair magazine article drawing on research for his upcoming book, "Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,'' Dallek used telephone transcripts of calls between President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to show that soon after taking office in 1969, Nixon was aware that victory in Vietnam was impossible.
Dallek also quotes the unpublished diaries of Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, who said, "Nixon later urged that Democratic critics making this same point should be labeled 'the party of surrender.' ''
Vietnam is primarily associated with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, although heavy U.S. casualties continued during the first term of Nixon's presidency. But Republicans, as recently as the 2004 election, charged that anti-war activists like Democratic nominee John Kerry were responsible for the U.S. defeat in Vietnam by turning public sentiment against a noble effort to save the Southeast Asian nation from communism.
"Nixon beat up on the Democrats in Congress for wanting to cut and run, in the current parlance,'' Dallek said.
In the current Iraq debate, UC San Diego congressional scholar Gary Jacobson said that unless the president's decision to increase combat troops works, "the game is going to shift to who is going to be blamed for the failure in Iraq. Bush wants to make sure it's not him.''
"The Democrats are doing him a favor by giving him someone to blame,'' added Jacobson.
Hints of that have come in recent congressional debates on Democratic proposals to oppose Bush's "surge'' strategy and to put conditions on more money for the war.
"What we are doing with this resolution is not a salute to GI Joe, it is a capitulation to Jihadist Joe,'' Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said on the House floor.
But Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution said the Iraq war has dragged on too long, has been too controversial and has become too unpopular for anybody but the Republicans to take the blame.
Republicans will try to shift the blame, he said, "but it will be difficult. One, the war is seen by the public as George Bush's war, and two, the public will be relieved to see it end one way or the other.''
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