Adrift and No Substantive Debate

We are adrift in Iraq and there is no serious policy debate equal to the dangers of the current situation. The problems are many.

It is not just that the Administration’s current course isn’t working, it’s that there is no clarity as to what that course is. There are slogans: “supporting our troops,” “fighting terrorists there so we won’t have to fight them here,” “advancing democracy,” etc. They all sound clear and quite simple, but they do not provide a realizable goal let alone a strategy. It should be clear by now that elections alone do not constitute a functioning democracy (either in Iraq or Afghanistan). With the original goal of a secular, Western-style democracy in Iraq exposed for the unrealistic objective it always was, there is a need for new metrics to measure success in Iraq.

In fact, the Administration has repeatedly and significantly changed its goals and tactics in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Given this, it appears that the real meaning behind the Administration’s “staying the course” slogan appears to be “trust us and whatever course we are on.”

In an effort to silence critics who don’t “trust” the current course, the Administration continues to use ridicule and exaggeration, resorting to attacks we’ve come to expect during a divisive political campaign, rather than important matters of public policy. This has worked in the past and, they hope, will remain an effective weapon. Evidence Vice President Richard Cheney’s strident rebuke of Administration critics last week, terming their arguments “dishonest and reprehensible,” “irresponsible,” and “revisionist.”

The larger problem, however, is neither the drift nor the silencing of critics, it is the failure of critics to coalesce around a viable alternative policy and have that alternative gain traction in the public discourse.

To date, most putative Democratic leaders (and that includes Senators Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, etc.) have failed to meet the challenge, largely because their critique has not moved beyond the vagueness that lost Democrats the Iraq debate in 2004. What it appears these Democrats agree on is that the Administration was dishonest in making its case for war, was wrong in its largely unilateral pursuit of the war, entered Iraq without a plan to win, and can’t be trusted to extricate the US from the growing dangers it now faces. But then, in an effort to remain “responsible and strong,” they acknowledge that once in Iraq, the US can’t just leave and so they conclude by calling on the Administration to set a timetable for goals, get other nations to play a part, and begin to draw down US troops in 2006. How this will ensure stability in Iraq and security for US troops who remain is never spelled out and so, in the end, appears to be no more serious than their initial surrender to Administration plans for the war back in 2002.

Not exactly a clear alternative!

In fact, the clearest Democratic alternative proposal was the one offered last week by Congressman John Murtha. After arguing that the war was based on “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion,” Murtha noted that US troops in Iraq have been a target for insurgents and a source of destabilization. He, therefore, calls for a redeployment of US forces to an “over the horizon” location and the use of diplomacy to secure and stabilize the country.

Murtha, a decorated war hero revered among Marines, was ridiculed as calling for surrender. Republican leadership in the House called for a vote on what they termed “a cut and run” resolution that was a distortion of Murtha’s proposal. Rather than articulate the difference between Murtha’s position and that put forth in the House bill, Democrats instructed their members to vote against the bill. Fear of being painted with the “cut and run” brush overwhelmed an opportunity for leadership.

An alternative moving in the opposite direction was proposed by another war hero, Republican Senator John McCain. While McCain, too, is critical of the Administration’s management of the war effort to date, he rejects calls for withdrawals and for timetables. Instead, he calls for an increase in the number of US troops and a plan and the resolve to fight the battle until victory. Given the current drift of the war, the public’s mood, and the attitudes of most members of Congress (not to mention that there is no agreed upon definition for “victory”), McCain’s approach, though principled, in his way, and unique, will most probably not get a hearing.

Somewhere in the middle of this muddle are positions developed independently by two Senators: Republican Chuck Hagel, a possible 2008 Presidential aspirant, and Democrat John Kerry, the Democrat’s 2004 Presidential candidate. Both offer the same criticism of the Administration’s conduct of the war to date and argue that power alone without a sound political strategy will not ensure victory. Both then provide, in some detail, a plan to create a regional security arrangement to promote security and stability and enhance economic and political progress in Iraq and its environs. Building on the recently convened Arab League summit of Iraqi parties and Iraq’s neighbors, both call for the permanent establishment of a regional security umbrella conference that, in addition to Iraq’s parties and neighbors, also brings NATO, the World Bank, Russia, and relevant UN institutions to the table. Such a standing conference would be charged not only with assisting political reconciliation, but “helping to build and coordinate government institutions” and providing “improved security assistance programs” to Iraq’s fledgling military.

While this approach could be considered a thoughtful alternative, it has largely been ignored. The media failed to provide any significant coverage to Senator Hagel’s Council on Foreign Relations speech. Senator Kerry’s speech did receive one day’s coverage, but it focused more on his failure to articulate a position during his Presidential bid than on the substance of his proposal. Because the proposals offered by the two Senators can’t be reduced to a slogan and because they have been ignored by the White House, the press has largely ignored them as well.

The result: we’re adrift in Iraq and the public knows it. They feel lost between the false choices they are offered: “staying the course” which they know isn’t working and “leaving” which they fear as an equally dangerous option. The mainstream Democratic alternative which is to find a middle ground and call for a phased withdrawal with or without timetables–”is not a responsible alternative. And so, the war continues, on its present and dangerous course. Dangerous not only because of the continued violence and the potential it holds for regional instability, but also because the worsening situation on the ground, the absence of leadership, and growing public opposition may 0ultimately limit the possibilities for future policy options.