Partisanship in the Iraq war

A New York Times poll, taken as the coalition forces moved toward Baghdad, caught my eye. It showed that while support for President Bush's war policy was shooting upward, it was driven mainly by Republicans: 93 percent of Republicans said they backed this policy, while just 50 percent of Democrats had come around to thinking that Mr. Bush was pursuing the right course in Iraq.

In contrast, the Times cited one of their polls taken at a similar moment in the Gulf War of 1991 that found the first President Bush's war policy pulling a strong 81 percent of backing from Democrats and 94 percent support from Republicans.

I wasn't surprised at the reluctance of so many Democrats to back the president in the current war at a time when there is a strong tug on all Americans to support their president while also rallying behind the embattled troops. The last presidential election left such bitterness among the Democrats. Many of them remained angry: They charged that Al Gore had been robbed of his popular-vote victory. So they have remained slow to buy into any of Bush's initiatives, domestic or foreign - and, particularly, the war in Iraq.

But I wasn't ready to accept the conclusion of the Times' reporters, Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder, who wrote about the poll. "The breakdown in support between the two parties," they wrote, "is reminiscent of the partisan divide that marked the later years of the Vietnam War." Not to me. The antiwar protest was tearing our country apart in those later years of that war. We certainly aren't close to that now. Back then, the antiwar passions spread from the streets and college campuses to millions of Americans. War debate became the No. 1 political issue.

I remember President Johnson and his woes. As he kept escalating our military involvement in the war, he often stopped at military bases when he was traveling around the country. He knew that once he moved out among the citizens he'd be in for an ugly meeting with protesters.

And as I closely followed Bobby Kennedy on his campaign for president in 1968, I saw his antiwar crusade stirring up an emotional response wherever he went. It was clear the crowds of Democrats loved Bobby and hated the war. Indeed, I always thought this emotional backing would have swept him into the presidency (and not Richard Nixon) had he not been assassinated.

No, this current antiwar movement hasn't reached that point - and I don't think it will. President Johnson - it will be recalled - had been almost beaten by Eugene McCarthy in a primary and was plummeting in the polls when he announced he wouldn't run again.

And when the protest against Vietnam pushed Johnson out, thousands of Americans had been killed in that war. The current loss of soldiers in Iraq is minute by comparison, and at this time no one is predicting such a Vietnam loss-of-life catastrophe. I asked Sen. Ted Kennedy recently, at one of the Monitor breakfasts, if he thought this war (to which he has raised strong objections) "could become another Vietnam." He said, "No."

There's irony in the current war protest. Much of the dissent centers on a rejection of the preemptive nature of the Iraq war. Indeed, the president has told us that this must be the nature of wars from now on: That we must destroy the enemy before it destroys us. But the dissenters take the position that for us to fight, we must be attacked, invaded, or, at least, threatened by some country or leader.

Those who held to that position in World War II were called isolationists. Their position was that Americans should not fight wars abroad - that we should stay within our shores and reserve our fighting for when we'd been threatened or attacked from abroad.

Those isolationists were, for the most part, Republicans in the Midwest and West. The movement in our country that pushed our involvement in the war against Hitler contained mainly Eastern-seaboard internationalists - who were in the main Democrats and backers of President Franklin Roosevelt.

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