Friday, April 16, 2004

How to Discuss Iraq

This is my last one for today (probably).. The Washington Post today features a couple of columns about how Iraq is, or should be, discussed in the presidential campaign. In his column, Campaigning on Defeat, former Senator Fred Thompson, criticizes criticism of the war. He says that the president's opponents cheer for failures and celebrate setbacks. He claims that they feel that there is a "constituency to be won from failure abroad." He states that we're there now, so instead of repeating claims that the war was a mistake, critics have an obligation to explain how they will secure victory. At the end he over-extends his wrong, but not entirely outrageous argument, to say that not only is such criticism politically dishonest, but that it materially helps the terrorists to even suggest that management of Iraq should be led by the UN or international allies. Woah, Nelly.

So, there is a part of his criticism that is interesting. That is the idea that war critics celebrate defeat, and also that since the choice is long over with, we shouldn't waste time discussing whether the war was a good idea, but rather should focus on how to win it now. The first charge is a good one. It's a zinger, in many ways it rings true, and it certainly appeals to the picture that Bush-supporters like to paint of their opposition. But I, obviously, don't think it's true. What I do think is true is that critics, like myself, opposed the war because we thought it would be a disastrous policy; costly, complicated, difficult, and possibly doomed to ultimate failure. When things go wrong, there may be a small element of "I told you so", but there's a much larger element of "don't you get it yet!?" When I see some new catastrophe in Iraq, I often think, maybe this will finally be it, maybe we'll get a clue, change tack, and really try to fix this thing. So far, no luck. It's not about being glad things go wrong, it's about feeling a certainty that things will go very wrong and hoping that there will be enough early warning signs that we will change course in time to avert disaster. As to whether or not it is important to talk, so long after the fact, about the initial decision on the war, of course it is. In his approach to the war on Iraq, George W. Bush made the greatest US foreign policy blunder in my lifetime. How can that not be a relevant topic to discuss as we assess the President's performance during his reelection campaign?

The one point on which Thompson is tangentially correct is that it is important to discuss what should be our course of action now that we're stuck in Iraq. I don't think that this topic should be separated from the topic of whether the war should have been fought in the first place. The manner in which we launched this war is precisely what created the rather untenable situation in Iraq we now face. Because we went in under false pretenses, without a UN mandate, without a significant coalition, without Arab and Muslim support, we have a huge legitimacy crisis and carry the entire burden of Iraq on our unilateral shoulders. Now there are no good choices, only choices between bad and worse. That needs to be noted when discussing what to do now.

On the topic of what should be done now, Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and Clinton national security adviser Anthony Lake have a Post column detailing their recommendations. Those are essentially as follows: Delay the handover of sovereignty until elections can be held. A turnover of power before that will be a sham and the Iraqis will see right through it. Increase the number of US troops in Iraq and use our renewed commitment to security in Iraq to convince our allies to also increase their forces in Iraq. And in the interim while we wait for elections and a new Iraqi government, form a true coalition governing authority that involves allied nations and puts a non-American at the helm. Great recommendations, all.

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