The heartland of America, under the pressure of a mismanaged war, has been slowly turning on this president. There is anger out there — as we found out in November’s elections.  When the most socially conservative Republican candidate for president, Sam Brownback, opposes the surge in Iraq, you know change is real. ~Andrew Sullivan

Think about that statement for a minute and ask yourself: of what possible relevance is it to changing attitudes about the war that Brownback is the “most socially conservative candidate for president”?  (That’s a claim Duncan Hunter might dispute!)  Brownback remains a hawk.  This is the same old Sam “kill ‘em with the kindness of unprovoked invasion” Brownback who voted for the authorisation of the war and has been a reliable defender of it ever since.  His opposition to the “surge” has obscured this, and earned him hatred on the right and a place of honour, so to speak, as one of Hugh Hewitt’s special targets for punishment.  Yet in the announcement of his candidacy, Brownback could not have sounded a more conventional rah-rah note on the war:

We are a nation at war. I just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops–the finest, most courageous people our nation has to offer–are fighting for the cause of liberty in places that have never known her. It is a long fight. We will win. We cannot lose our will to win! We must win to redeem our troops’ sacrifice. Let us resolve to have a bipartisan strategy for the war. We need unity here to win over there. This is not the time for partisanship on any side. Lives–and our future–are at stake. 

If Brownback is channeling Middle American anger, he is doing it in a very oddly optimistic and cheery way.  If he is a real agent of change on Iraq war policy, I will eat my hat.  He wants a “bipartisan strategy” on the war, and perhaps he thinks that’s what he’s helping to craft in supporting the language of Warner’s resolution, but whatever it is he’s doing he is not the blaring horn of heartland frustration with the war. 

So why does Sullivan keep prattling on in his dreary “Vive La Resistance” tone about Brownback’s opposition to the proposed “surge”?  Sullivan is deeply enamoured of two myths he has been weaving around Brownback’s increasingly half-hearted, qualifier-ridden opposition to the “surge”: the first is that Brownback’s rejection of the “surge” is deeply significant because it portends a great GOP backlash against the war (here I believe he is completely wronginside the GOP support for the war remains stunningly strong); the second is that there is some kind of necessary connection between Brownback’s social conservatism and the war that makes Brownback’s dissent particularly meaningful (hint: it doesn’t). 

The latter myth is more understandable given Sullivan’s bizarre view of the state of the modern GOP: according to him, it is a “religious party” dominated by “fundamentalism,” which is a phenomenon that somehow obviously leads to support for big government and the Iraq war.  In other words, Sullivan has come to dislike or criticise religious conservatism, big spending and the war, and therefore they must all be linked in some overarching “fundamentalist” takeover.  Therefore, if a religious conservative now criticises the new “surge” plan (even if he actually supports a smaller, Warneresque surge into Anbar and has no fundamental objections to continuing the war) this is proof that big changes are happening.  Big changes may be happening, but Brownback–an odd duck in GOP politics if ever there was one–does not represent them.  Big changes may be happening, but the social conservatives whom Brownback does represent are not part of them.  Indeed, Brownback’s social conservatism is almost entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand.  The degree of his social conservatism is really neither here nor there.  Many longtime antiwar conservatives are no less socially conservative than Brownback, and some may even advance a social conservative rationale against the war (e.g., one cannot be for aggressive war and also for the sanctity of life at the same time), but that is not what is happening here. 

This brings us back to the first myth about Brownback that Sullivan has been pushing.  Sullivan gives the impression that it is a Big Deal that Brownback opposes the surge, seeing it as a sign of an impending GOP turn against the war.  I think this is because Sullivan seems to mistakenly see all opponents of the surge as holding a view similar to his, which has gradually evolved to a pro-withdrawal position.  Here he could not be more wrong.  Brownback is opposed to the ”surge” plan because he believes it is an inferior plan and does not bring us closer to the victory he believes to be imperative.  He has repeatedly objected to the “surge” because he is skeptical of the possibility of a “military solution,” and he said numerous times that we need a “political solution” in Iraq, which is rather like saying that the decapitated man needs a head.  It is undoubtedly true at some level, and yet it is not a meaningful answer to the more significant problem.  In the case of Iraq, that problem is apparent impossibility for a unified country to continue to exist without communal bloodshed.  For this, there is no “political solution” consistent with current U.S. policy that makes a unitary Iraq non-negotiable.  That policy must be fundamentally changed to allow for partition, which is the only “political solution” anyone has come up with that will “succeed.”  Partition, however, would obviously be even more destabilising in the long term to the wider region than withdrawing and watching Iraq collapse into frenzied violence. 

In any case, Brownback is not anti-surge because he has somehow morphed into an “antiwar evangelical,” to use Sullivan’s completely inaccurate designation for evangelicals who oppose the surge, but is against the Bush version of the surge because he thinks there is a “political solution” to be found, which simply duplicates the central error of Mr. Bush’s plan.  This error is to regard Maliki and his government as trustworthy actors.  Mr. Bush’s military plan presupposes Maliki’s good faith and independence to make the security side of the plan work; Brownback’s “political solution” chimera is completely dependent on the notion that Maliki is something other than Sadr’s handpuppet.  In this way, it is possible to view Brownback’s opposition to the surge as being even more unwise than Mr. Bush’s plan because it proceeds from the same key false assumption about political reality in Iraq.  All in all, the more we learn about why Brownback opposes the surge, the more antiwar conservatives have less and less reason to view him kindly.  Needless to say, that Brownback has decided to separate himself from the rest of the ‘08 field with his “surge” position likely does not indicate anything about the views of social conservatives generally with respect to the Iraq war. 

The Republican Senators whose names have been associated with these resolutions have been, almost to the last man, incumbents who will be running in closely competitive races in ‘08 or who are finding themselves in increasingly Democratic states.  I don’t assume they are being purely cynical, but they are covering their flank against charges of being Mr. Bush’s flunkeys (charges of which they have been very guilty in the past) to be able to compete in states where the war is probably far less popular than the national averageThat is where change is coming from.  Sadly, it is not coming from the rebellion of hitherto loyal, war-supporting conservatives, but from the increasing revulsion of every other part of the country at a war that most self-styled conservatives still refuse to bring to an end.