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We Owe it to Our Troops to Return to the Real Issue of the Election

11/01/2006 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The American public should simply accept no distractions. In our democracy, it is our duty to hold our elected leaders accountable. We do it at the ballot box. And we should do it not on the basis of personalities or stereotypes, but on the basis of results. Our men and women fighting in Iraq are held accountable for their performance and their conduct. On duty and off, twenty-four hours a day. They're fighting for us, for our safety, our rights, and our freedoms. Surely, we owe it to them to push aside the distractions and bring the focus back to the essence of this election:

Iraq.

In my short time in politics, I have learned many new clichés. One of them surely is that quote, "This is a critical election." In this case, it is dramatically true. The incumbent administration seemingly can not, or will not, make hard choices about the most important issue ever to face government officials: war and peace. The only hope for a national change of course is a Congress far more willing to play it's constitutionally required role of counter balance to a misguided executive. If citizens allow this great debate to be derailed by a momentary fracas over a mistake in a speech (by a man who has actually served in combat and does support the troops), we will have tragically missed a rare opportunity.

John Kerry made a mistake trying to joke about "getting stuck in Iraq." But this election isn't about John Kerry; he isn't running. But, for a crazy day or two, his gaffe has provided a powerful distraction to an election shaping up to be a referendum on the President's national security policy, and his mission in Iraq, in particular. We can not allow the most powerful country in the world to get sidetracked when American lives and the future of our leadership in the world is at stake.

When NATO attacked Yugoslavia to halt ethnic cleansing in 1999, a US reporter warned, 'let us do a feature article on you - the public only gets personalities, they don't get issues like this.'. It was a lesson I painfully relearned in my own Presidential campaign. So, I suppose it's to be expected that Senator Kerry's remarks - and John himself - would become the focal point of relief for a campaign that has been hard fought, and bitterly partisan.

But with just a few days to go, it's time to return to the real issue of the campaign: Iraq. It was a war of choice, a war that has defined the Bush Presidency, and captured the almost unanimous support of the Republican-led Congress. For three long years after US troops occupied Baghdad, and as the country spiraled deeper into chaos and violence, loyalty to the President and his party demanded many members of Congress to follow his motto: "Stay the course". There have hardly been any Congressional hearings on the course of the war, but those that have been held have been firmly controlled. National security seemed to require that the Congress forfeit its independent oversight role. Critics were often demonized, public accountability minimized and policy alternatives were rejected.

But by early September and through October, a combination of leaked intelligence and briefing documents and mounting American casualties has kept Iraq front and center in the minds of voters. Neither a record fall in gasoline prices at the pump nor a record rise in the DOW Industrials index seemed significant enough to distract the eye of the electorate. Even the spectacle of a Republican Congressman soliciting underage Congressional pages vanished quickly from the airwaves., to be replaced by reports of daily American casualties in Iraq, and a leaked preview of the dismal policy alternatives to be submitted by James Baker's bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Polls show a distinct and steady decline in public support for the war effort, and, more ominously, increasingly the American public has begun to doubt that the invasion of Iraq is in any way connected to winning the war on terror. Sitting Congressmen began to distance themselves from the President, the White House signalled that its "Stay the Course" motto was being refined, and more and more Republicans began to call for Rumsfeld's resignation. The vast majority of Americans wanted to see America succeed in its mission in Iraq, and now that seems increasingly unlikely. Democrats offered a more realistic, accurate appraisal of the situation, but there are no panaceas at this point. To many, every alternative seemed simplistic, wrong-headed, or even more prone to failure.

In such a forbidding public dialogue, is it any wonder that John Kerry's blunder is being used to distract us? But how frightening and sad for America if we let this continue. How much easier to attack personalities and resurrect stereotypes than to deal with the grim realities of the Administration's national security predicament! The truth is that America's armed forces are badly overcommitted, the situation in Iraq has deteriorated beyond the ability of our best generals and bravest troops to correct, Afghanistan is sliding into a long-term insurgency which spells failure for the minimalist US commitment there, and both North Korea and Iran are ratcheting tensions. For a political party that fancies itself as the national security party, their cup runneth over with problems, many of their own making.