Fighting Words

Nowhere To Go

Stop the taunting, and let’s have a real debate about the Iraq war.

Where should we go, Mr. Murtha?

So, Bill Clinton got it wrong as usual, by making a smarmy plea for a truce of civility from his Little Rock library redoubt. The Iraq debate does not need to become less rude or less intense. It needs to become much more bitter and much more polarized. As I never tire of saying, heat is not the antithesis of light but rather the source of it.

No, the problem with the Iraq confrontation, as fought “at home,” is not its level of anger but its level of argument. After almost three years of combat, the standard of debate ought to have risen and to have become more serious and acute. Instead, it has slipped into a state of puerility. Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, squeals about cowardice and suggests that those who differ are stabbing our boys in the back—and then tries to revise her remarks in the CongressionalRecord. This is to sink to exactly the same level as those who jeer that sympathizers of the intervention should “send”—as if they could—their own children, if they should happen to have any handy. Or even to the level of those who claim that anti-war criticism demoralizes “our men and women in uniform.” I can’t be absolutely sure of this, but the “men and women in uniform” whom I have met, and who have patrolled edgy slums and nasty borders, are unlikely to burst into tears when they hear that someone even in their home state doesn’t think they can stand it. Let’s try not to be silly.

For a while, it seemed possible that the sheer reality of battle in Iraq—a keystone state in which we would try the issue of democracy and federalism vs. fascism and jihadism—would simply winnow out the unserious arguments. Those who had jeered at the president for “trying to vindicate his daddy” would blush to recall what they had said, and those who spoke of imminent mushroom clouds would calm down a bit. Those who had fetishized the United Nations would have the grace to see that it had been corrupted and shamed, and those who pointed out that it had been corrupted and shamed would demand that it be reformed rather than overridden. Those who had wanted to lift the punitive sanctions on Iraq because they were so damaging to Iraqis could have allowed that the departure of Saddam was the price they would have to pay for the sanctions to be removed. Those in power who had once supported and armed Saddam might have had the decency to admit it. Those who said that it was impossible, by definition, to have an alliance between Saddamists and fundamentalists might care to notice what they had utterly failed to foresee.

Instead, we have mere taunting. “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” “Terrorist sympathizer.” It’s certainly appalling that Michael Moore should be saying that the Iraqi “insurgents” are the moral equivalent of the minutemen, but my tax dollars don’t go to support Moore. My tax dollars do go to pay the salary of Scott McLellan, who ought to be looking for other work after he accused the honorable but simple-minded Rep. Murtha of being a Michael Moore type.

I am not myself trying to split this difference. For reasons that I have explained at length elsewhere, I think that the continuation of the Saddam Hussein regime would have been even more dangerous than the Bush administration has ever claimed. I also think that that regime should have been removed many years before it actually was, which is why the Bush administration is right to remind people of exactly what Democrats used to say when they had the power to do that and did not use it. No, there are two absolutely crucial things that made me a supporter of regime change before Bush, and that will keep me that way whether he fights a competent war or not.

The first of these is the face, and the voice, of Iraqi and Kurdish democrats and secularists. Not only are these people looking at death every day, from the hysterical campaign of murder and sabotage that Baathists and Bin Ladenists mount every day, but they also have to fight a war within the war, against clerical factions and eager foreign-based forces from Turkey or Iran or Syria or Saudi Arabia. On this, it is not possible to be morally or politically neutral. And, on this, much of the time at least, American force is exerted on the right side. It is the only force in the region, indeed, that places its bet on the victory and the values of the Iraqis who stand in line to vote. How appalling it would be, at just the moment when “the Arab street” (another dispelled figment that its amen corner should disown) has begun to turn against al-Qaida and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, if those voters should detect an American impulse to fold or “withdraw.” A sense of history is more important than an eye to opinion polls or approval ratings. Consult the bankrupt Syrian Baathists if you doubt me.

But all right, let’s stay with withdrawal. Withdraw to where, exactly? When Jeanette Rankin was speaking so powerfully on Capitol Hill against U.S. entry into World War I, or Sen. W.E. Borah and Charles Lindbergh were making the same earnest case about the remoteness from American concern of the tussles in Central and Eastern Europe in 1936 and 1940, it was possible to believe in the difference between “over here” and “over there.” There is not now—as we have good reason to know from the London Underground to the Palestinian diaspora murdered in Amman to the no-go suburbs of France—any such distinction. Has the ludicrous and sinister President Jacques Chirac yet designed his “exit strategy” from the outskirts of Paris? Even Rep. Murtha glimpses his own double-standard futility, however dimly, when he calls for U.S. forces to be based just “over the horizon” in case of need. And what horizon, my dear congressman, might that be?

The atom bomb, observed Albert Einstein, “altered everything except the way we think.” A globe-spanning war, declared and prosecuted against all Americans, all apostates, all Christians, all secularists, all Jews, all Hindus, and most Shiites, is not to be fought by first ceding Iraq and then seeing what happens “over the horizon.” But to name the powerful enemies of jihad I have just mentioned is also to spell out some of the reasons why the barbarians will—and must—be defeated. If you prefer, of course, you can be bound in a nutshell and count yourself a king of infinite space and reduce this to the historic struggle between Lewis Libby and—was it Valerie Plame? The word “isolationist” at least used to describe something real, even “realistic.” The current exit babble is illusory and comprehends neither of the above.