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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Litmus testes

Yesterday, I gave a talk on Iraq at the Metro Democratic Club of Louisville. Ken Stammerman, a former career US foreign service officer with extensive Middle East background, shared the microphone with me.

Ken kicked off the evening by talking about Iraq's history and the backstory behind America's most recent involvement. He covered the creation of the Iraqi state, the various political regimes, Saddam Hussein's rise to power, the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf war, and the UN sanctions regime in the 1990s.

I then answered these two questions, as requested by the organizer (complete with the short versions of my answers):

1. Q: Why did the US go to war?
A: Because we could. Because it was there. Because we thought it would be easy. Not to be flippant, but I think the administration (or at least the hawks in the Pentagon and in Cheney's office) thought that Iraq would provide a quick victory in the "war on terror," thus creating momentum for US policy and help put the squeeze on Iran.

WMD and terrorism were the stated rationales, but those aren't rally holding up. Al Qaeda had no "collaborative relationship" with Iraq. Paul Wolfowitz told an interviewer that the criminal mistreatment of the Iraqi people was not a sufficient reason to fight. Oil probably had something to do with it, at least behind the scenes, as did tactical concerns -- such as the desire to remove US troops from Saudi Arabia.
2. Q: How has the war gone?
A: Not well. Polls reveal that a majority of the population think the war was "a mistake." However, in truth, the Bush administration committed one error after another.

They botched the pre-war diplomacy at the UN; they screwed up the WMD intelligence; they failed to deploy enough troops to provide post-war security; they ignored the State Department's "Future of Iraq" project, which included some excellent planning; they disbanded the Iraqi army and thus helped create an angry, armed and unemployed base of insurgents; they completely misjudged the economic costs of the war; and they have failed to engage the Sunni Muslems in Iraq.
Ken then presented the basic options from this point forward: stay the course; quick withdrawal; phased withdrawal; or escalation.

He was really worried about creating a failed state and the prospect of civil war.

Ken then handed me the microphone and I spoke to the group as Democrats: In 1960, JFK won an election by making everyone believe that the Eisenhower administration had been soft on defense. Sputnik and the "missile gap" played a key role in this. Since Vietnam, however, Republicans have turned the tables and made Democrats out to be weak, anti-military, anti-war and practically un-American.

A Republican Vietnam veteran like Senator Chuck Hagel can safely (for his political career and presidential aspirations) say that the US is losing in Iraq, cannot hope to win by escalating troops (because it's too late), and thus needs to get out of Iraq ASAP.

Could a Democrat say these things? Or are Democrats left to follow as Hagel leads a political parade?

I suggested that Democrats need to present a very serious national security posture to the electorate. In all likelihood, the Republicans are going to announce some targets for phased withdrawal before the 2004 mid-term congressional elections and will manage to get some troops home. Thus, the Dems have to take that into account as they prep for the next election cycles.

John Kerry tried to argue that he would be a more competent leader in the war on terror, but not enough Americans believed him. Sad as Katrina was, the storm did reveal that the Republicans in charge of the federal government weren't especially prepared for a disaster.

So, what to do? Talk (and think) seriously about how resources should be spent on genuine homeland security. Bring up Osama bin Laden and come up with a plan to find him and mitigate the threat from al Qaeda. Think creatively about what the US should do after Iraq, that doesn't necessarily involve substantial new military budgets or a new war.

If they want to win back the Congress and the White House, Democrats have to pass the national security litmus test. They've got to have cojones exhibit some chutzpah.

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