"Rallied by Bush, Skittish G.O.P Now Embraces War as an Issue," is the front page story in the NY Times today.
That's a story that the White House wants us to know. How do we know they want us to know it? For one thing, it was written by Jim Rutenberg of the Washington Bureau of the NY Times. Thanks to the miracles of modern internet technology you can go to nytimes.com, put rutenberg in their search box, and find out that he's one of the administration's go to guys when they want to the world to know that the President is in 'high spirits,' that he took time out to call the US soccer team and wish them well, or that they're honing 'strategy for the post-Zarqawi era.'
The administration is famous for the tactic of turning weakness into strength and attacking their opponent's strength as if it was weakness. The classic example was to make Bush, the guy who pulled strings to stay out of Vietnam, then went AWOL, into a strutting fighter jock warrior, while using surrogates to tear apart John Kerry, the guy who actually went to war and won actual medals in the face of actual hostile fire.
Let the Democrats learn from that.
George Bush wants the war. He wants it to be his issue. Yes. Yes, please, let him have it. Let it be all his. But it has to be all his. I heard Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on the radio and he said that it was time to get out of Iraq because it had gone on too long, with too many deaths, at too great an expense. Frankly, it sounded weak and wishy-washy. It sounded like the problem was that he - and the Democrats - just didn't have the stomach for a long, tough fight. Which is how the Republicans want it to sound. That's not the position to take. Nor is it the issue. The position to take is that it's not America's war at all. The issue is that it's George Bush's war. His own, personal, private obsession.
So much so that he was scheming and plotting for years, even before 9/11, to have that war. Then, after 9/11, he lied and misled us, he used members of his administration to lie and mislead, in order to convince both the congress and the American people to have that war.
Once he had the war, he and his people planned it ineptly and executed it disastrously. It's his ineptitude and his disaster. When the Democrats call for a date to end the war, they're trying to solve Bush's problems for him. They can't. On a realistic level, simply because he won't listen. On a political level because it puts things on Bush's terms and makes the Democrats sound like they're concerned with mere costs rather than with a moral vision.
What the Democrats should do is call for Bush to march further forward: explain why we're in Iraq, what the goals are, and how we'll achieve them. This means going through chapter and verse of the reasons that were offered. The first set - that there were connections to 9/11, al Qaeda and possession of WMD - were false. That should be formally established, certified and reiterated.
The second story was that Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. It is necessary to clarify why that is insufficient reason to have a war. The United States worked very hard to establish that any war that didn't have Security Council approval or was not actual self-defense would be an illegal war. The costs are vast - as we are beginning to see - and the consequences unpredictable.
The third narrative is that the war in Iraq is somehow part of the 'war on terror.' Finding bin Laden and putting him on trial in New York City would clearly have been an attack on the terrorists who attacked us and could be called a war on terror . Organizing an international police and military effort to round up al Qaeda members would also have fit. So would following the money until we caught the people who funded him.
Why didn't we do those things? Why did we invade one country in order to get bin Laden and the man who harbored him, Mullah Omar, but let them both get away? Why did we invade a second country, Iraq, instead of doing the simple things listed above?
What are we doing to actually pursue the war on terror? How are we to measure our success or failure?
It is apparent that the administration made a decision to go to 'the dark side.' That is they decided not to catch and prosecute terrorists publicly as criminals or war criminals. Instead - if they have gone after them at all - they've done so secretly, kidnapping them, puttting them in secret prisons, interrogating them with deprivation and torture and handing them over to others for even more severe tortures.
We need to ask if that is a good choice, if it's better than public trials following the rules of law. Has that policy been successful? How can we measure it? Call the administration's statements before the war
what you will - lies, spin, misstatements, inadvertent inaccuracies - they demonstrate that we can't accept their assertions at face value. They need the strongest kinds of documentation and support.
That establishes that the war in Iraq was not a counter-attack against the 9/11 attackers and that it doesn't make much sense as part of the war on terror either.
That takes it back to George Bush and why he, personally, wanted this war.
The most generous explanation is that the president was pursuing a visionary policy, that he saw himself cutting the Gordian knot of the Middle East, that he believed that after Saddam was removed Iraq would become a western style, secular democracy with a total free market economy - a real neo-con paradise - and it would become, in turn, a center of stability and a beacon for change.
If that's why we're in Iraq, is that still our goal?
If not, what is our revised goal? That must be articulated in a clear and measurable way.
Then we can ask how are we to get there? What will it cost and how long will it take? The things we've been doing so far don't work. What will we do differently? Should we consider the people in charge thus far to have failed? If so, who will replace them? Who will be responsible for oversight and review?
How will we get real information about what's happening in Iraq?
That's important and apparently difficult.
At the moment there seems to be two separate narratives.
George Bush was there for five hours and was mighty impressed.
At the same time there is a secret embassy memo that says no Iraqi dares admit that he works for the Americans or he'll be murdered. That no one can go outside the Green Zone without an armed escort. That militias and gangs are actually in control of most parts of the country.
Reconstruction has not taken place. By most material measures - hours of electricity, education, clean water, working sewers, available fuel, garbage collection, security, the rights of women - the country was significantly better off under Hussein.
In addition to having a goal we need independent, trustworthy witnesses to judge our progress toward it. Or our failure. Then we can ask the president if he intends to solve things on his watch, or leave the mess for the next president to sort out. If he can solve it, really solve it, on his watch, fine.
Then we might decide, moral or immoral, honest or dishonest, as a practical matter, it's best to support it. If he can't, then let's make it clear that it's his war. His obsession. His mistake. His error.
The Republicans will try, as they have in the past, to claim that it's everyone's war. That the Senate and House voted for it. Fact #1 is that's not literally true. The war powers bill voted to allow the president to go to war without coming back to them if he determined that Saddam was an actual threat and there was no way short of invasion to deter that threat. There were ways. He didn't employ them. He avoided them. And went to war instead.
Fact #2 is they did so under false pretenses.
It's George Bush's war. It's not America's. If he can win it, great. So far, George Bush has been losing it. That's right, so far George Bush has been losing George Bush's war. Not the army, not the liberals, not the media. Like Frank Sinatra, he got to do it his way. After we accept that it was his war - and that he lost it - then America, led by someone better, can step forward and apologize on his behalf.
That's not cutting and running. That's America, taking the high road, to make up for someone else's mistake.
Larry Beinhart is the author of Wag the Dog, The Librarian, and Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin. All available at nationbooks.org He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org