The Democrats need to achieve two things with respect to the mess in Iraq: 1) They need to help move the U.S. toward the best possible policy to deal with this mess; and 2) They need to make sure that the responsibility for the mess attaches to the people who made it.
The second task is not less important than the first. That's because the disaster the Bushites have created in Iraq is only one part of the serious damage they have done to America and to the world. And if the Democrats' handling of Iraq enables the Bushite forces to maintain power after their present public faces leave office, this serious damage --to our Constitution, to our political discourse, to the environment, to the just distribution of power and wealth-- will continue.
This issue of the politics of responsibility arises because --at least so it seems clear to me, but of course not only to me-- the "best possible" outcome in Iraq will not be anything good.
Despite W's continuing use of the word "victory," the chances of anything like victory are--evidently-- negligible to nil. Despite the Bushites' talk of "success," it is --apparently-- unlikely in the extreme that the outcome will look to the American people anything like success. Despite the rhetoric about wanting the sacrifice of American troops not to have been in vain, there would seem to be virtually no chance whatever that the "best possible" outcome will have achieved anything remotely worth the many costs paid by Americans, let alone the suffering Iraqi people.
A great many chickens, in other words, are heading home to roost. And as the Democrats influence the course of policy in Iraq, it is vital that they make sure that those chickens roost where they should-- with the Bushites who chose this war, who lied to bring Americans along with the decision, who alienated the whole world with their lawlessness and arrogance, who bungled the venture with repeated misjudgments, and who have been practically the last people on earth to grasp how profound a disaster they have created.
To anyone knowledgeable, it's perfectly clear whose responsibility this disaster is. But it is also clear that --however else they've proved incompetent-- the Bushites have shown themselves masters at manipulating public opinion to believe the manifestly untrue. As soon as the Democrats' fingerprints have been placed on the Iraq policy, the Rovian propagandists will be at work to peddle the lie that it is the Democrats who "lost Iraq." (Imagine if Kerry had become president in 2005, and the Iraq situation had become what it is now, what the Republican propagandists would be doing.) If only the cut-and-run Democrats had not meddled with the in Iraq, this mythology will declare, we would have achieved the glorious outcome in Iraq that our great war-time president originally promised.
Incredible, yes. But not only have such Rovian gambits worked in the past, but also there is in the more distant American past plenty of precedent for just this kind of distortion.
The "stab in the back" myth has a long history among American conservatives. Throughout the cold war, right-wing Americans never tired of accusing FDR of giving away Eastern Europe at Yalta, for example. This accusation was made despite the fact that, at the time of this alleged "betrayal," the Red Army already had Eastern Europe in its grip. Then there was the "who lost China" mantra in the early 50s. Following that, there was the American failure in Vietnam: there remain millions of Americans on the right still trumpeting the idea that the defeat of the United States in Vietnam was the fault of the peace movement at home, and the meddling of the Democratic Congress in withdrawing support (after the war had already been going on for a full decade).
A lot of Americans, in other words, have shown themselves willing to believe the incredible falsehood in order not to accept the unacceptable truth that the United States cannot always achieve its will in the world. And a lot of Americans are glad to find a scapegoat --some faction of Americans on the other side of the vital line dividing those strong and righteous Americans, like them, from the wimpy and disloyal Americans like the Democrats-- on whom to heap the blame for anything that looks like an American failure.
So there is a genuine political danger here for the Democrats.
Fortunately, there is also a simple strategy for warding off that danger. And it is one also that pays the additional dividend of helping to clarify what the best course of action actually would be, and to create some national consensus behind it.
The Democrats should start off their weighing in on the Iraq issue by conducting public hearings of the right sort, which I will now describe.
HEARINGS: ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS OF THE RIGHT PEOPLE
The main question that should be answered, in public hearings, is: What are the options for the United States for dealing with the situation in Iraq?
That question entails, for each of the various possible options: What are the possible outcomes? What are the probabilities of each outcome? What are the likely costs and benefits of those outcomes?
These are questions that need to be answered as a basis for making wise policy choices--the first goal mentioned above. And they need to be answered --publicly, by credible people-- also to meet the second goal, mentioned above: to give the American people the understanding of what chickens are essentially already coming home to roost.
The need from a policy point of view is clear: from both supporters and opponents of the war, one hears too little in the way of clearly thought-out answers to questions such as those.
General Abezaid, in testimony last week, rejected the idea of "timelines" for American troop withdrawals. But he does not provide any substantial analysis to show that the US troops he wants to keep in Iraq are actually likely to accomplish anything worth the cost.
Senator McCain talks these days about increasing the number of American troops committed to Iraq, but he does not provide any clear ideas about such questions as: What reason to we have now to believe that anything important can be accomplished in Iraq by the application of American substantial military power? Is it really realistic to believe that sending additional troops would enable the U.S. to accomplish anything good? What would be the mission of these extra troops?
Many of the most passionate opponents of the war seem to assume that since the war was a mistake, the best solution is quickly to withdraw the troops that should never have been sent there. Withdrawal MAY be the best option. But one would like some good analysis to establish that this terrible situation would not get still worse with such a withdrawal, and that --given the national interests and moral responsibilities that should govern American policy--this is the best of all possible options.
If it were possible, therefore, to get a really clear picture of the likely scenarios ensuing from various different policy choices, it would increase the chance that this country could minimize the further damage to both Iraq and to the United States.
Getting that clear picture would also provide --I would wager-- the political cover the Democrats need. If the picture that emerges, in credible public hearings, indicates --as I expect it would-- that the disaster is already "baked into the cake," then the locus of responsibility would be clear. The Bushites have had their unfettered will on Iraq, up to this point, and if the "victory" is already impossible, if the failure is already essentially a fact, showing all this to the American public will forestall any "stab in the back" propaganda from the Rovians.
If the value of presenting the reality to the American people is granted, then the question arises: how can hearings be used to establish that kind of credible picture. And the answer to that question is: compose the witness list so as to make the credibility of the composite picture from the testimony too compelling for any partisans to deny it.
What will NOT provide either clarity or credibility is a witness list produced according to political considerations.
In particular, it would be self-defeating to have a list that is "balanced" between supporters and opponents of the war. That prejudges the question by assuming that each position is of equally valid. Imagine what "balance" would do to an inquiry into whether the earth is round or flat.
Nor should we hear from office-holders whose jobs it is to promote their bosses' official positions.
Rather, the witness list should be drawn up according to objective criteria of expertise and excellence. One way to identify the most qualified people, those with the greatest pertinent insight and knowledge, would be to send out questionnaires to people in the various relevant fields, asking: "Who are the ten people in [your field] whom you respect most for their insight and judgment and knowledge about the formulation and conduct of America's foreign and/or military policies?"
Among the groups who could be approached with such questionnaires: academicians in international relations; retired military officers; foreign service officers; Middle East specialists; former secretaries and under-secretaries of State and Defense...
From each group, take the half dozen names that recur most frequently. These would constitute the three dozen or so witnesses who would be brought before publicly televised hearings to tell America how they see America's options in Iraq: "What are the choices? Which do you think best, and why?"
While there would undoubtedly be different positions expressed, the likely outcome would be a clustering of the different perspectives around a kind of consensus. Just as it has been found that markets --in which buyers and sellers come together to set "prices" for different possible future scenarios-- manifest a wisdom in assessing future outcomes superior to that of the individual participants, so I expect that out of the three dozen sets of views expressed, there would emerge a kind of consensual view, with considerable validity, of the situation and the options in Iraq.
Such a consensual view would be of enormous value for the nation as we seek to clean up the mess that the Bushites have made in Iraq and to do so in a way that minimizes the further damage to both countries, to the region, and to the international system as a whole.