I’m grateful to Steve for inviting me back to The Note, and to repay his trust and friendship, I’m going to raise a disagreement with one of his other guests.
Arianna Huffington suggested yesterday that calling for a troop removal from Iraq would nationalize the elections this fall for the Democrats. I don’t agree.
A couple of disclaimers: first, I strongly believe that bipartisan solutions are, in the long-term, the only solutions to what is now a broken foreign policy. Much as I detest the policies of this Republican President and this Republican Congress and want to see them change, the most important people in government right now are the internationalist Republicans that have quietly worked against the grain.
Second, Arianna and I share a lot of common ground. We both believe the invasion of Iraq was an awful idea, and we both question the wisdom of keeping troops there indefinitely and without a plan for victory. We both think the Democrats are rolling the dice on their future by depending on Republican incompetence and ethical lapses. And we both believe the Haditha incident and Abu Ghraib, like so many of the Bush Administration’s policies, are morally abhorrent and make America less safe.
But we disagree on the potential of troop withdrawal from Iraq as a central campaign issue.
Arianna and I interpret Haditha differently. She would have you believe that Americans will see it as the latest chapter in an ongoing tale of our presence in Iraq making us less safe.
Not me. Yes, people are mad that their sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers were sent to fight on false premises in a poorly planned operation, and officeholders who don’t recognize that should bear the brunt of AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s residual anger and mistrust.
But abuses at Haditha and Abu Ghraib are just that — atrocities, not political opportunities. It’s a logical stretch to use them as proof points for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. In fact, in this climate of fear, it’s no easy task (albeit still worthwhile) to even convince Americans that these atrocities make us less safe.
The Democrats would make a serious mistake by making the midterm elections about a troop withdrawal. Right now, both parties are engaged in healthy internal disagreements over when to leave Iraq. Forcing a premature and artificial consensus will not generate electoral benefit, but it just might generate some bad policy.
If the Democrats want to make a point on Iraq, they would be wise to focus on the dishonesty and subsequent missteps of the Bush Administration — and then move on. Over-emphasizing and proposing to “undo” failures of the Administration is the stuff of opposition parties and would only serve to reinforce the Republican characterization of Democrats as negative and void of ideas.
Part of why the Iraq issue is so attractive to Democrats is that it’s tangible and emotional — what my colleague Val would call a “heart issue.” In the past, Democrats have struggled to find foreign policy heart issues, so instead, they’ve changed the subject to the economy. But neither focusing solely on Iraq nor emphasizing economic issues can provide the foundation for a true Democratic majority.
Most voters aren’t asking where Democrats stand on Iraq. Most are angry about the war, and they’re going to make unrepentant supporters of the invasion pay for it one way or another. Voters are asking a much smarter “heart question”: what do Democrats believe America stands for?
The U.S. government right now is starved for some innovative big-picture thinking, and there are lots of good ideas out there.
Who, in either party, is brave enough to call for a comprehensive approach to international security, a recommitment to international institutions and cooperation, or a collective sacrifice for the common good? These are (sadly) audacious ideas that America can apply to its approach to any number of pressing foreign policy challenges, including Iraq, and suitable long-term counterweights to the prevailing right-wing story.
Democrats are understandably looking for an exit strategy from their dependence on Republican incompetence and abuses in the 2006 elections. They won’t find it in Iraq.
Scott T. Paul is Campaigns Manager at Citizens for Global Solutions.