Iraqing Their Brains

How can the Democratic candidates escape the trap they set for themselves?

The only presidential candidate with a truly coherent position on President Bush’s Iraq policy is President Bush. He supported it before the war started, he supports it now, and he thinks or pretends to think it’s working well. Among the Democrats, Howard Dean’s position is almost coherent. He opposed the war before it started and believes it has not turned out well. There is a tiny question of why Dean bothers to have a “seven-point plan” for Iraq instead of just one point: Bring the troops home. After all, Iraq is less of a threat to international order and its own citizens than when Saddam was in power. If it wasn’t worth American lives to improve the situation then, why is it worth more lives now?

It’s downhill from Dean. Joe Lieberman probably comes next. He was a strong supporter of removing Saddam by force—a position consistent with his general worldview—and yet was prescient in warning, before the war started, about some of the problems everyone points to now. Then come Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, and John Kerry. They all supported the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war—a position with the whiff of strategy about it, given each man’s record or lack of it on such issues—and they all are highly critical of what that resolution has wrought. Trailing the parade is Wesley Clark. His claim to fame is that he supported the use of ground troops in the Balkans. He squandered the non-office-holder’s luxury of voting in hindsight on the Iraq resolution by not having his story straight. Meanwhile, he is highly critical of the war as it played out.

The slow souring of the American adventure in Iraq is a promising and legitimate issue for the Democrats. And they will benefit from it no matter what they say. But what they say about Iraq is a problem for the contenders who supported Bush’s decision to go to war. Do they now think that support was a mistake?

If they say yes, supporting the war was a mistake, they are declaring that in a test case of the most important decision a president must make—when to go to war—they got it wrong. And if they try to explain their way out of this by talking about how the Bush administration “deceived the American people,” they sound like George Romney, who was laughed out of the 1968 presidential race for saying he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the war in Vietnam.

On the other hand, if they say no, I don’t regret my support for this war, the question naturally arises: Well, if everything you’re complaining about doesn’t change your mind about the war itself, why are you making such an unholy fuss? Apparently, if you had been president, we’d be in the same mess.

Like mice frustrated in a maze, the candidates seek escape routes out of this logical trap. Sometimes they say that the current mess is not the result of the decision to go to war. It is the result of Bush’s inept leadership during the war and/or the postwar occupation. He should have waited longer for diplomacy to work. He should have insisted on the participation of other big countries instead of going it virtually alone. He should have been better-prepared for the challenges of rebuilding. He should not have been blindsided by continued opposition after the official fighting stopped.

But the resolution these gentlemen supported gave war-making authority to George W. Bush, not to some idealized, all-knowing president such as themselves. The resolution did not say, “This authorization to start a war is valid only when used in conjunction with at least two other countries large enough to spot on a medium-sized world map.” Nor did it tell Bush to wait until … until … until when? The resolution gave George W. Bush the authority to decide when the waiting for friends to join in or the foe to back down had gone on long enough. If Bush bungled this authority, entrusting him with it was a big mistake.

Anyway, critics of the war resolution predicted a lot of what has actually gone wrong. Critics also predicted a lot that never happened—a general Mideast cataclysm, nuclear bombs over Israel, poison gas in New York, quadruple-bladed disposable razors, and so on. But no one can claim to have been totally surprised by what did happen. Or at least no one can claim this and believe that saying so rescues their reputation for straight talk, clear thinking, foreign-policy expertise, or political savvy.

Another dead-end line of argument is that the war resolution never was intended to lead to war. Goodness, no. War was the last thing anyone had in mind when they voted to authorize a war. The idea was to give Bush enough leverage to work out an acceptable deal and thus avert an actual war. And then Bush ruined everything by going and having a war after all. Who’d have thunk it?

Unfortunately, a democracy cannot bluff. You cannot have a public debate and vote on whether to pretend to be willing to go to war. When it comes to war-making, the United States is not really a democracy: Like all presidents, Bush assumes (and is generally—though incorrectly—conceded) the right to decide to make war all by himself. But a senator who votes for war must pretend, at least, that this vote matters. You can’t get out of a vote you regret by saying, look, it’s all a joke anyway.

A year ago, everyone was saying: Let’s get practical. Only a Democrat who supports the war against Iraq will have any hope of defeating Bush. The idea was: Get Iraq off the table, and make room for domestic issues. Maybe this is still the right idea. But many Democrats now want Iraq as an issue. And the only Democratic candidate who can use it effectively is the one who decided not to be practical.