Monday, July 09, 2007

Who will take the blame for Iraq?

Reading the New York Times's day-late-dollar-short editorial calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq brings to mind what I think is in fact the key question that is stalling all progress on the American Iraq policy: who is going to take the blame for the catastrophe? There strike me as being at least four different camps on this question, each of which has radically different political goals, and none of which are either willing to partner with another group or can form a majority on their own.

At one extreme are the die-hards. These guys still believe that the war was a great idea in the first place, and that it is capable of being brought to a successful conclusion. I'm thinking here of folks like the delightful Podhoretz family. These guys want to make sure that "if the venture fails" then the blame will go to anyone who at any time has expressed any qualms about motivations underlying the war--in other words, virtually all Democrats and a sizable number of Republicans.

These are the prime promulgators of the incipient Dolchstosslegende, blaming liberals and the media for the catastrophe, even as they deny that there is a catastrophe. These guys are trying a straight replay of the Vietnam blame game, trying to create the public impression that the reason we lost that war was because of media quislings and liberal pansies.

In this effort to blame the failure in Iraq on liberalism, however, these guys face two formidable challenges. First, unlike in Vietnam, it's awfully hard to rope the liberals into any responsibility for the way the war has been waged -- there's no LBJ or JFK to blame for starting the war. Second, the anti-war movement, such as it's been, has been far more polite (read: passive & ineffective) than its 1960s-70s antecedent. This time around, there just won't be rioting long-hairs for this wingnut fringe to pin the blame on. Cindy Sheehan's candlelight vigils just don't measure up to Chicago 1968.

With that said, these guys are definitely laying the groundwork for blaming the withdrawal on the next (almost inevitable Democratic) president. They're being assisted in this by Bush, who is doing everything he can to push off the withdrawal to the next administration, so that he can maintain for historical posterity that if only his course had been stayed, it would all have worked out great. And indeed, to some extent the political strategy is working: the threat of being blamed for the failure in Iraq is certainly part of what has the current Democratic leadership incapable of pushing hard for a withdrawal. You might say that they are scared of their party's historical shadow.

Second, at the other extreme, are those who want to blame the failure for the war in Iraq on anyone who supported the war in any way. This group blames a culture of imperialism, and wants to try to make anyone who supported the war look like an idiot, complicit in the catastrophe. The strategic goal for this group is to try to forge a historical sensibility that will hamstring this country's ability to commit similar crimes in the future. The maximal hope is to pin the blame for the war's failure on the political culture of imperialism--and thereby destroy that political culture. This prospect seems like a long-shot as well (cultures of imperialism do disappear, but it takes a greater trauma than the one we have thus far suffered in Iraq) but it explains the antics of folks like Cindy Sheehan.

What's interesting about this group is that while they call for immediate withdrawal, their efforts to affix the blame for the disaster on all who supported the war actually makes it politically more difficult to build a consensus to withdraw. In short , this group is willing to let the war go on longer rather than let those they deem co-responsible for the war get off scot free. They want the country to learn a lesson, not just make some hasty political compromises to get out of Iraq. Now, whatever you may think of the ethics of this position, it is clear that political decisions are never reached this way in this country. And I mean never: the whole political history of the country is a series of half-measures and compromises, and the idea that this is a turning point in that part of our political culture is foolish. Be that as it may, the fervently antiwar crowd, nonpragmatists to a man and woman, are trying to turn Iraq into the tombstone of American imperialism. Which is why committed American imperialists view these people as treasonous -- they intend to undermine what the imperialists consider to be the core values and ambitions of the country.

Third, you have the flip-floppers formerly known as liberal hawks (or, more accurately: the liberal imperialists) -- Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, pundits named Berman, etc. These guys supported the war, and believe in the empire, but realize that the Iraq war is lost and the time has come to leave, because staying only weakens the empire. This group mainly focuses its blame-gaming on the Bush administration, specifically on his execution of the war. In other words, these guys argue that the war was a good idea in the first place (which is why they voted for it), but that the implementation has been a hash. (In other words, if only a President Gore had been running the war, it would all have worked out great.) The main problem these guys face is that the argument is so out of kilter with the facts that it is hard to sell this story. Specifically, it's clear that there is an institutional, systemic problem that led us into this four year catastrophe, not just one man's poor leadership. However, this critique is all but impossible for them to make, because they suffer from the original sin of having voted for the Iraq War resolution in 2002. That original vote, supported by a little over half of the Democrats in Congress, is what makes it very difficult to blame the war on conservatism. The result is the ongoing flaccid finger-pointing at Bush, and little ability to get GOPers to support withdrawal. In sum, these people lack any political leverage on the issue, because they have so little credibility.

The last group, and really the key to all this, is the core of the GOP. Not the rightest half of the party that runs in uncontested GOP strongholds (they're in the first group), but rather the majority of the GOP politicians who face big political consequences if the voters decide to blame the GOP for the war. These guys have loyally supported Bush on the Ben Franklin principle that if they don't hang together, they shall most assuredly hang separately. But the Dems have also let these folks off easy so far, by not trying to pin the blame for the catastrophe on the GOP. The Dems have done this in large part, of course, because any attempt to blame the rank and file of the GOP for their support of the war runs into the tricky problem that many Democrats also supported the war, at least at first. These GOPers don't know who to blame for the war exactly, and most of them are politically terrified that no matter what happens, they are going to get blamed. On the one hand, since Bush will certainly get stuck with a huge chunk of the blame (unless some miracle lets him pull a chestnut of victory from the fires of Baghdad), sticking with Bush is presents a horrible political risk. On the other hand, breaking with Bush to go with the liberal hawks presents the same problems for this group as it does with the liberal hawks: how can you blame Bush alone for something that you supported so vociferously for so long? None of these people want to be the first to break with Bush, but none of them want to be left behind with the wingnut fringe, if they're in a swing district and a lot of the party has already moved.

In sum, it's a classic political impasse. But here's the key point: this impasse is a disaster for the troops on the ground. While Washington plays a four-way game of political chicken over the political responsibility for the policy failure, its the military that continue to ooze blood into the sands of Mesopotamia. Rather, what the troops want (need!) is a reasonable, realistic discussion of what comes next. The original mission--to create a stable, democratic, prosperous Iraq that would be a beacon of hope and change for the Middle East--clearly has failed. Dead as a doorknob, and everyone knows it. So, given that Iraq is in a civil war, the question is: what next? Specifically: what do we want our force posture in the Middle East to be in five years, and how do we get there from here in an orderly fashion?

That's the debate the military wants us to have, but in the meanwhile, Washington is trying to sort out who is going to take the fall for getting us into the mess. And whatever the rhetoric on all sides, that's hardly supportive of the troops.

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