Four Years Later: Leadership is Needed, Not Political Calculation

Four years ago, a month before the start of the U.S. war in Iraq, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and I attempted to introduce a resolution we hoped would be debated at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee. Our resolution noted that despite signs the administration was moving headlong into a war in Iraq, the president had not been clear about the costs, consequences and terms of commitment for the U.S. military in that war. He had not laid out strategic objectives, nor had he documented a compelling enough case to win the support of the American people or the international community.

Armed with these concerns, our resolution simply called upon Democrats to insist that President Bush be more active in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution, and be fully transparent with his plans for Iraq.

Despite our best efforts (including penning an op-ed “Democrats Must Lead or Risk Losing,” [1] which appeared in a number of U.S. papers) to push for an open debate on the drive toward war, party leaders would not allow the resolution to be discussed or voted on at the winter meeting. I was, however, given the opportunity to speak on this issue at the executive committee meeting. My remarks were well-received, but no discussion or vote was allowed.

What this meeting is best remembered for, of course, was Governor Howard Dean’s stirring challenge to the party delivered only a few hours after my frustrated effort to have a debate. It was at the opening of his speech to the assembled Democratic activists that Dean asked, “why in the world is the Democratic Party leadership supporting the president’s unilateral attack on Iraq?”

From the pressure I was subjected to in the days leading up to that meeting, I had already learned, first hand, the answer to Dean’s question. It was political calculation. Democrats lacked the confidence to confront the president on an issue involving national security. Despite the public’s ambivalence about President Bush and his march to war, Democrats would repeat the tired mantra: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the president in the defense of our country.” Some Democrats wanted to appear strong on national defense, ignoring the reality that “strong” and “smart” are not always the same thing.

They would criticize Bush’s tax cuts, his failure to address the healthcare crisis, or his relationships with corrupt corporate officials, but when it came to the war, different calculations were made.

It was this inherent weakness that allowed the president to win support for his war resolution in the fall of 2002. Some Democrats, to be sure, had opposed the White House in principle. But too many others made the calculation (actually verbalized to me by one senator) that “we’ll give him this vote, get it out of the way and then be able to focus the 2002 election on the issues we do best on: the economy, education, healthcare, corporate corporation.”

The calculation failed. Dean was right, as was the Democratic base. The party leaders were wrong.

In the end, it was, this political calculation and insecurity of some Democrats that gave Bush all he needed to drag the nation into war. As I have said before, invading Iraq without defining a compelling enough case to win international legitimacy for the effort and armed with no plan (other than what I have called the “infantile fantasies” of “shock and awe,” “flowers in the streets,” “blooming democracy,” etc.) and without understanding the consequences of this war on our nation, on the Iraqi people, or on the region as a whole was at best, an act of “criminal negligence.” And some Democrats were as complicit as the president in this crime.

Four years later, the Iraq debate has changed, though, on some levels, it has not significantly or qualitatively improved. Other than knowing a few Arabic words to describe the sectarian groups in that country, there is still little understanding or appreciation of Iraq’s history or culture. And there is still too little acknowledgement of our responsibility for the chaos and tension our policies have created in that country and the broader region. Those who want to “surge to victory” don’t understand or acknowledge this. Neither do those who want to set a date to leave as precipitously and unilaterally as we went in.

The Iraq Study Group report, while not perfect, provided important guideposts leading to a responsible way out. Some Democrats initially embraced it, then ran away from it. The administration, on the other hand, rejected the report and then began to cherry-pick pieces of it, feigning support, but only giving lip service to the most important of the ISG recommendations. For example, the ISG’s call for a commitment to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace or for the establishment of an Iraq Contact Group doesn’t mean an occasional visit by the Secretary of State or an informal meeting in Baghdad. What the ISG sought was a concrete way for the U.S. to rehabilitate its image and leadership in the Middle East, rebuild regional trust and alliances and create a structure which invested neighboring countries in efforts to achieve regional stabilization and reconciliation in Iraq.

It is this path that would have shown the way forward: isolating extremism, confronting Iranian ambitions and providing for an orderly removal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Without such a comprehensive regional plan, either staying and fighting or setting a date to leave will result in only more chaos.

Making matters worst, there is now intense pressure from the Administration and from AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby) to ratchet up the campaign against Iran, without any idea of where this will lead, other than to war. And tragically, once again, too many Democrats are falling into the same trap they fell into four years ago. And once again, it is out of insecurity and the political calculation that it is better to appear tough instead of smart.

These are dangerous times that require courageous and thoughtful leadership. Those who were culpable in getting us into this mess should accept their responsibility. They owe us and the Iraqi people more than the limited current debate. What they owe us is a comprehensive plan: a plan for an Arab-Israeli peace, a plan that will rebuild fractured ties with allies enabling us to defeat extremists, stabilize and reconcile Iraq, confront Iranian ambitions and bring U.S. troops home.

We need this kind of leadership, not more political calculation, because the price we’ve paid for that has already been too high.