Beginning of the End

This Thanksgiving, those of us who look forward to the possibility of a future in which war is more often averted than anticipated with relish, enhancing the chances for peace and the freedom that flourishes best in an atmosphere of peace, have a great deal to be thankful for. The Bush administration is unraveling before our eyes, which almost certainly means that despite belligerent rhetoric, just now the Iraq war (or at least direct U.S. involvement in it) should begin to wind down. That could set the stage for a wide-ranging national debate/discussion on the future of American foreign policy.

What’s more gratifying, while public acknowledgment of the administration’s descent into the Second-Term Blues might have been precipitated by the nomination of Bush’s personal lawyer, Harriet Miers, the salient issue in the meltdown is the conduct of the ongoing war in Iraq. It is largely as a result of a widening public perception that the president is utterly detached from reality when it comes to Iraq that he has reached low approval levels that presidents in the past have seldom been able to climb out of.

Almost everybody I have talked to in Washington in the last week says the atmosphere is as charged and as mutually suspicious between the two parties as they can remember, and that includes some who were around town during Watergate. It’s not just the polls that show the credibility of the president and other top administration officials at a low ebb. The professional politicians in Washington – people who make their living analyzing and manipulating power – see the Bush administration as severely wounded.

It’s not that a comeback is impossible. It might even be that when they get back to their districts during the current Thanksgiving two-week "working vacation" they will find people upset at the turmoil in Washington and urging congresscritters to ease up on that poor President Bush. But they might also find disillusionment with the war to be even deeper than they had suspected. At the least they are likely to find an increasing willingness to talk about the war and its implications in terms that go beyond the usual sound bites.

Thus we have an opportunity – if the upcoming discussion and debate about Iraq policy ever rises to a level above name-calling and personal attacks – to help shape that debate in the direction of eschewing imperial adventures and foreign interventionism. It could be that the American public is more ready to hear that point of view than at any time in recent history.

Waning Appetite

That impression is bolstered by a recent Pew Research Center poll that shows, as MSNBC put it,

"Americans’ appetite for world leadership has waned significantly since before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, with more than two-fifths saying the United States should mind its own business."

The Pew poll in question is on "America and Its Place in the World," conducted every four years. The last poll was undertaken in August 2001, so it offers a pretty good benchmark of how Americans felt before the terrorist attacks and how they feel about the aftermath, including the U.S. response. The results might well have been quite different if it had been conducted during the run-up to the war, when few Americans doubted the reliability of administration statements on the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. Coming at this time, however, it amounts to a significant rebuke to the administration and the government in the cold light of dawn when it is apparent the war isn’t going so well.

Specifically, four years ago, only 30 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." In the new survey, 42 percent of Americans agreed with that statement. And the survey was conducted from Sept. 5 through Oct. 31, before the vote by the Senate that allowed Republicans to express mild disapproval in the form of requiring more information and a better sense of strategy from the executive branch.

The poll is also interesting in that it polls those it calls "influentials" – journalists, academics, state and local government officials, religious leaders, and acknowledged experts in various fields separately from the general populace. These "influentials" are even more "gloomy," as MSNBC put it, about any good coming from the Iraq war than is the general public. Thus 37 percent of Americans at large think the effort to establish a stable democracy in Iraq will fail, but 84 percent of scientists, 71 percent of foreign affairs specialists, and 63 percent of journalists think it will fail. Some 44 percent of Americans at large think the Iraq war has damaged the struggle against terrorism, but higher percentages of every "influential" category (including military and 82 percent of foreign affairs specialists) think it has.

Going Beyond Recrimination

It seems quite defensible, then, to believe that the stage has been set for a wide-ranging debate/discussion in this country about America’s proper place in the world.

The public call by Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, a 37-year Marine Corps veteran who has been generally pro-military and hawkish, for a prompt beginning to withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq has served as something of a catalyst for what was bound to happen soon anyway: a national debate or discussion on what to do about Iraq and perhaps about U.S. foreign policy in the near future. The president’s declining poll numbers and the increasing number of Americans – now a majority if the polls are to be believed – who believe the war was a mistake made it inevitable.

It would hardly be prudent to expect it in this era of sound bites and 24/7 cable news channels (which have the time to host extended and serious discussions of foreign policy, which would be almost as cheap to produce as reruns, were they so inclined) but it would be nice – and helpful to the antiwar side, which in my view is more rational – if this round of discussion could be civil and substantive. There has already been more than enough name-calling and personal attacks.

And while I think it is helpful to our side that the administration has chosen to engage the question of whether there was deception from the government in the months leading up to the invasion, it would be nice if the coming debate is more about the future than the past. The past is important, and it’s worth continuing to explore. But disinterring the past won’t change the present, and future policy must start from where we are rather than from where we might have been if certain things had been done differently and we hadn’t made the mistake of invading Iraq.

Discussions of wars and how to end them are inevitably about life and death. Insofar as the debate over Iraq carries implications for the future foreign policy of the United States, it will affect this country’s posture in the world and ability to negotiate the inevitable crises and problems overseas. And attacks in Europe, Indonesia, and elsewhere suggest that the problem of jihadist terrorism will not go away soon and could manifest itself in this country again.

So a great deal is at stake.

Toning Things Down

Shouts of "Bush lied, people died" on one side and accusations of cowardice or lack of patriotism on the other will not help us.

Here are a few suggestions about how both sides could make the debate reasonably productive rather than yet another televised shouting match.

Those who support the war and the administration would do well to acknowledge that despite the number of schools and hospitals built and the possibility (polls vary) that most Iraqis would rather see Americans stay longer rather than leave soon, the occupation has not gone well. A brutal insurgency has not abated and American and Iraqi lives are lost every day. Is this because the U.S. does not have a strategy to defeat the insurgency? Does it suggest that the current strategy needs to be changed? Is it possible that the presence of U.S. troops is more an aggravation and impetus for violence rather than a calming influence?

These are serious questions that deserve consideration more serious than sound bites or talking points. Unless proponents engage them seriously rather than responding with Pentagon-prepared statistics on sewage and the like, the debate is unlikely to be productive.

On the other side, those of us who have opposed the war from the beginning or have come to oppose the war would do well to acknowledge that whether the initial invasion was justified or not, it has created a situation that offers no easy options. Would a prompt pullout of U.S. troops lead to more chaos and killing in Iraq rather than prompting Iraqis to get serious about their country’s future and reject violence? Will a withdrawal be seen as a defeat that prompts terrorists to ever more ambitious acts of violence? Will U.S. credibility be damaged to the point that U.S. public and private interests overseas are affected deleteriously?

These are also serious questions that deserve sober consideration. Unless we deal with them seriously rather than simply refusing to acknowledge them, we will be seen, correctly, as frivolous.

Both sides would do well to acknowledge that while they may believe a U.S. pullout would (a) increase chaos or (b) have a calming effect, in fact nobody knows for sure. The future is notoriously unpredictable, subject as it is to the actions of people who right now are not able to predict what they will do in two or three months. It is possible to muster evidence and consider probabilities, but we will be dealing with probabilities rather than certainties. I don’t know anybody equipped with a reliable crystal ball. All sides could use a little humility.

That said, let the discussion begin (or continue at an accelerated pace). The future of the United States as a free society is quite literally at stake. All Americans have an interest in having as many options as possible on the table.


Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).