Saturday, August 27, 2005

We broke it, we own it

The debate between the Cindy Sheehan camp and President Bush has reframed the questions around Iraq in a way that could be devastating for the Democrats.

Over the past week, the President has taken his show on the road to contest the central premise that is being argued on the streets of Crawford. With the willing complicity of the Sheehan camp and, he has framed the issue as whether the United States should withdraw immediately from Iraq. He says no, they say yes.

Like any good strategist, the President has defined the terms of the debate and chosen a field for battle on which he as substantial advantage.

Or one advantage really. He is right.

The Move-on legions that are braced for battle in Crawford are fueled by anger and frustration at the existence of a war that is a sideshow in the war on terrorism and their failure to escalate the debate over the war beyond syllogistic platitudes. They seek in Crawford to score points in the political battle and inflict damage on a President in his vacation bunker.

Meanwhile, Bush has escalated the argument, and has gleaned substantial strategic advantage, as shall become clear over time. Rather than pursuing what seemed to be the logical course of action: meeting with Sheehan, feeling her pain, asserting the overriding national interest and honoring her son, Bush has used the opportunity to move away from difficult questions of how and why we got into Iraq to a more simple debate and countered Sheehan’s emotional appeal by drawing on the wellspring of other mothers who have sacrificed for their nation and who continue to support Bush’s war.

The issue, Bush has asserted, is not Cindy Sheehan’s pain, but whether immediate withdrawal is the right thing to do. Should the United States, having entered Iraq and unleashed the simmering tribal and ethnic hostilities long held in check by Saddam now simply leave Iraqis to clean up their own mess. Or rather our mess.

As Colin Powell suggested in advising against the war early on: you break it, you own it. We, as a nation, now own it. We may disagree on how we got there, but that is a problem of our politics, our national character, our capacity to lead in the world. Whatever the origins of that war, it is now our problem.

Bush and Karl Rove, to say nothing of Democratic leaders, know well that to leave now would leave the Iraqi people vulnerable to civil war and anarchy. The time to leave Iraq will be when a duly constituted and legitimate Iraqi government asks us to leave. Not sooner and not later.

We have broken their politics, and until it is fixed we, as a nation, own it.

The problem that we face, and that is manifest on the streets of Crawford, is that our politics is also broken. We argue war through syllogisms and bumper stickers. Support the troops. Fight them in Baghdad. Bring them home. We are collectively responsible for our presence in Iraq. The Senate voted for regime change and ultimately war in Iraq several times and with no meaningful dissent outside of West Virginia.

But for Bush the politics are working just fine. Once again, the Democrats have walked into the trap. They have walked onto a battlefield of Bush’s choosing and still don’t understand why the President is still smiling.

The Democratic Party is at grave risk in this debate. In the absence of articulate national leadership, the legions of Move-on are now framing the foreign policy of the Party. Leave Iraq now.

Just wait. In 2006 and 2008 part of the debate will focus on the readiness of the Democrats to lead in a world of terror where hard decisions have to be made. Somewhere in the bowels of the vast right wing conspiracy, or in an office in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, they are already laying out the central themes of the debate:

They were ready to abandon the Iraqi people to the predations of terrorists and to civil war.

That was wrong, it was immoral, it reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of our role in the world.

They are not ready to lead.

Not now, perhaps when the war on terror is over…


DeanR said...

...and it just gets worse. I read that Cindy Sheehan said the US "is not worth dying for."
Where are the articulate national Democratic leaders you ask about? Where are the Democrats who can say Bush is wrong and also say Cindy Sheehan is more wrong?

stevew said...

I like the shift in perspective to recognizing that, rightly or wrongly, our country entered in to the war and now _we_ have a mess. I, for one, am still prepared to be part of this we, and thus need to figure out how to focus effectively on dealing with the mess. Thanks.

I guess part of the problem for me lies in the "hard decisions" concept, the reduction of the mess to "stay or leave", etc. Improving the mess seems to me less about such decisions and more about inventing relationships, ways of supporting and evolving the interactions of the US and its allies with Iraq and its allies. Figure out more about how to live in today's world with the tribal and ethnic hostilities writhing under and on the surface.

What is a "duly constituted and legitimate Iraqi governement"? How do we know that's the point at which we should leave. Does it make sense to frame this in terms of "when we should leave"?

This is where I think it might actually help to also keep in mind the work we could have done, the relationship building and insights that might not have led to such a mess.

The arguments against the war are not so much helpful as justifications for chanting "leave now", but they might contain stuff we can use in improving the situation and working our way out.

We need to imagine and live our way into a different place. "Traps"? Maybe. Perhaps more just playing out how we live a the moment. Thanks for trying to take us up out of it for a moment, to see it, reflect on it, begin to think about do it differently.

Now we need to do the work of building better forms of connection and support and hopefully find political leaders whose framing and rhetoric can create the space for this effort.