In late 1942, following the British army's victory over the Afrika Corps at El Alamein, Winston Churchill delivered an extraordinary speech, ending with the line, "It is not the end. It may not be even be the beginning of the end. But it undoubtedly is the end of the beginning."
When given a similar, if not nearly so pivotal moment, President George W. Bush could do nothing grander than stand on an aircraft carrier deck below a banner prepared by his staff that read "Mission Accomplished." Then, later, when it became clear that the mission hadn't been accomplished, and that the postwar challenges would likely be even more serious than even critics had predicted, Bush, when asked about the growing number of terrorist attacks, resorted to his own version of inspiration: "Bring 'em on!"
We needed Churchill, but we got "Don't mess with Texas."
We needed the truth; what we got was swagger.
Recently in London, where for the first time in history an American president had to remain under protective guard, Bush acknowledged that during the run-up to the war there were "good faith disagreements in your country and mine." He was at least conciliatory, if not candid. From the moment that the president, along with his best and brightest, decided to parley 9/11 into a justification to invade Iraq -- and along the way transform almost a century of foreign and military policy -- he has moved to marginalize all opposition. In Bush's world, there's not even room for an expression of concern.
Recently, his campaign committee aired its first television commercial, and to my dismay, if not surprise, it comes in the form an "attack ad." In it, Bush calls into question not only the judgment but the patriotism of all Democrats for "attacking the President for attacking terrorists."
This is a lie, of course. Democrats are criticizing Bush for his unilateralism, his arrogance, and his lack of planning for a post-Saddam era. But are they attacking him for attacking terrorists? Is this how you treat those on the other side of "good faith" disagreements? Apparently.
The country needs statesmanship right now, but our president is pulling Willy Horton off the shelf. He has more than $100 million in his campaign coffers, and he can't do better than the kind of attack ad that tried to turn triple-amputee and Vietnam vet Max Cleland into a traitor. At the very time the country needs honesty, reflection and education, it looks like our president is going to rely on demagoguery to stifle debate and get reelected.
In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman calls attention to Bush's tawdry politics, and argues that Democrats must see beyond it to what's really at stake. He contends that what we have stumbled into may be the most important American intervention since the Marshall Plan. But like most objective observers, he concludes that the window for success is closing. He gives us six months.
There's the rub.
Friedman is right, but he underestimates the destructiveness caused by those tawdry politics. While we must succeed in Iraq, there is much to debate, and it falls to Bush to set the tone for that debate. If he fails -- if he lowers the bar, if he obfuscates the issues out of expediency -- so too will his opponents, and America and the world will be the worse for it.
And unless the Democrats can show intellectual and moral depth they haven't yet demonstrated, they could well lose this debate. Ideas matter, and even bad ideas usually beat no ideas. Jacob Weisberg recently wrote that "Democrats have their own vulnerabilities on Iraq. Several of the candidates were highly unrealistic, to say the least, in their approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein. With the honorable exceptions of Lieberman and Gephardt, they've all been irresponsible in their refusal to support funding for the occupation -- which we need to make a success, whether or not the invasion was a good idea."
To muddy the waters even more, as Madeleine Albright points out in her recent piece in Foreign Affairs magazine, Bush doesn't want to deal with Iraq as a distinct obligation. "The problem is," she writes, "that President Bush has reframed his initial question. Instead of simply asking others to oppose al Qaeda, he now asks them to oppose al Qaeda, support the invasion of an Arab country and endorse the doctrine of preemption -- all as part of a single package." That single package is a new world order, one closer to Woodrow Wilson's vision than Henry Kissinger's -- a democratic world, but not necessarily a stable one. His critics had better understand that Bush seeks not oil, but what one writer terms "a place in history."
The basis for that place in history, breathtaking though it is, can be challenged. His vision can be challenged as both arrogant and naive; his means as problematic, too costly and, perhaps, hopelessly flawed. But the criticism of both ends and means must accept the immediate necessity of succeeding in Iraq.
To say that not one Democratic candidate has found direction, let alone a "voice," puts the matter gently. All remained mired in the WMD issue. Most continue to bang away at colleagues who voted for the resolution that authorized the invasion and more recently the $87 billion military and aid package. Most seem not to grasp Friedman's insight regarding the importance of our success. Wesley Clark has come the closest to dealing with these issues, but no one has managed to effectively address questions of strategy. All candidates, however, agree that the line of thinking that got us in Iraq and sits waiting to drive all future foreign policy decisions requires lots of reasoned debate. They're right.
This is a debate that must not be shut down by attack ads and swagger.
Publication date: 12/04/03