War and Remembrance

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

Had leading Democrats taken the trouble to fashion thoughtful and reasonable national security principles in the post-Vietnam era and thereby regained the confidence of the American people in their ability to protect the country, quite possibly they would have felt comfortable opposing the invasion of Iraq. Instead, they permitted the now infamous war resolution to become a test of their "strength" and George W. Bush was provided a necessary bipartisan coalition of support.

Democratic leaders could have conditioned their votes on a requirement that the president answer four questions: Who is going with us?; How long will we be there?; How much will it cost?; and, What are the estimated casualties? These are reasonable questions, and the administration should have been forced to go on record with its estimates, estimates for which it could then have been held accountable by the American people.

War fighting calculations include worst-case scenarios. Based on British experience in the 1920s to the 1940s, and based upon even a cursory study of the Islamic struggle in Mesopotamia, any reasonable person would conclude, and some did, that the overthrow of the strongman Saddam Hussein and dismantling of existing security structures would unleash 1300-year-old factional violence, that the American viceroy would be captive in his castle (read: Green Zone), and that occupying forces would be incapable of restoring order anytime short of 20 years.

Given the rampant incompetence of the Bush administration, its arrogance and twisted self-righteousness, and its violation of America's republican heritage, under normal circumstances the Democratic Party would be assured of thirty to forty years of majority leadership. But that advantage was squandered for short-term political gain in October 2002. The Democratic Party is not responsible for the Iraq war. But had its leaders stood fast, and simply and reasonably conditioned their support on straightforward questions being answered, John McCain's nomination today wouldn't be worth the votes that produced it.

History is valuable only if we learn from it. Two lessons seem obvious: Democrats must regain their heritage of genuine national strength and purpose, a heritage from Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson; and war is justified only if a threat is immediate and unavoidable and only if all other means of resolution have failed.

We are now, after five long years, approaching 35,000 American casualties. The dead and wounded deserve our respect, our honor, and our commitment to see that future lives are not spent in vain. If you see uniformed military personnel, take the time to thank them for their service. The wounded in body and mind must be a constant reminder that our leaders should not commit future forces to conflict for reasons of political expediency or perverted ideological agendas.

The decision to authorize war against Iraq represents a singular test of leadership and wisdom. It is the defining difference in the contest for leadership of the Democratic Party and our country. If that difference is not taken seriously, we will have learned little from this tragedy.