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June 16, 2006

Posted by Michael Signer

Lots of news today about the vote the House Republicans are staging attempting legally to redefine Iraq as part of the Global War on Terror, and legally to prevent the United States from announcing and enforcing a deadline for withdrawal.

As a policy matter, there are pros and cons to the bills proposals.  But as a political matter, this is more of the same astonishingly short-sighted, backfire-prone maneuvering that, in my view, has led to our current state of disunity on a policy issue of generational importance.

It may seem trite nowadays -- but there are hard policy reasons that JFK believed politics should stop at the water's edge.

Here's how the WaPo describes the vote's political goals:

The votes will not bind the administration, but the debates had the effect of putting scores of elected officials on the record concerning the nation's most pressing issue at a moment when the approaching midterm elections are putting control of both the House and the Senate in play.

Let's get this straight.  The bill has no binding effect.  So it's not policy.  It's symbolic.

Two quick problems with this:

1)  There are certain times when symbolic politics are understandable and certainly effective for their partisans -- but does it make any sense right now, when what is obviously needed in Iraq is hard thiking on difficult, interesting policy solutions, to be exhausting all of our political energies on surface issues?

2)  I'm wary of Theories of Everything, to which bloggers, writing quickly and on deadline, are particularly prone.  But I believe -- and wrote here a while ago -- that you can trace most of the practical policy difficulties in Iraq back to a political decision that the Administration made:  to stage the Congressional vote authorizing force in Iraq three weeks before the 2002 mid-term elections, with the obvious goal of preventing traditional mid-term losses. 

This was comprehensible as a symbolic, political short-term goal.  But the long-term consequences were horrifying.  Because the war immediately divided the country's political leadership, it made it impossible to get a true majority behind the war.  That made it more difficult to envision wide-ranging support through active-duty troops.  It made every funding decision afterward highly political.  It meant the media would portray the war as partisan and divided.  It meant that other countries were watching a country torn asunder, rather than one confident, robust, unified.

It was a classic example of symbolic politics undertaken for short-term political gain, with long-term policy consequences -- and, as it turns out, political consequences, as the President and his Party's popularity plummets, ironically because the policy has been so bad.

As Santayana said...


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What did Santayana say?

J Thomas -

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Thank you! I guess those who don't know their historical quotes are doomed to have them repeated to them. ;)

Oh well. As long as we stay a real superpower, the wars in Congress will be more important than the wars on the other side of the world. The fight for control of the only superpower's military will outrank the fights that military actually does.

We need to be very careful to notice when we lose superpower status, or the internal fight might last one war too long.

On your two points:

1) The Republicans have decided to make a virtue of necessity by embracing the Iraq war wholeheartedly. The calculation may be that on this issue Democrats would rather temporize (ie. support and criticize the war), and that if forced to choose most voters will still prefer not to set a date for withdrawal.

2) By holding a vote on the war in the fall of 2002 and another one now, you argue that a "true" majority could not get behind the war and cannot do so now. What do you mean by a "true" majority?

Congress should declare global poverty part of the war on terror while they're at it. The Military arm of this war is obviously of paramount importance, but the foreign aid arm of the this war should be just as strong. We can't fight terror with our military while we ignore some of the causes of terrorism. Let's get back to some basics and get more funding for the Millennium Goals. The conditions that much of the world lives in are breeding for terrorist activity. We can't afford to ignore this issue any longer.

All of the current partisan warfare derives from a political deicision in 2002?

And everybody's trapped in those postured roles ever since? Think for a moment how you've trivialized all sides in the debate.

I say, ridiculous. I give those rankerous opponents of the war credit for taking a position they think is right.

As to "politicizing" the war or trying to seek temporary political advantage, I say, "are you kidding?"

What is more politicized posturing than making accusations about "Bush lied," and the "intelligence was fabricated," accusing the Administration of high crimes, treason, etc.?

I respect what you guys are trying to do here, but to even approach even-handedness, you need to look at political opportunism on BOTH sides.

The reason JFK and Strong on Defense Jackson Democrats held to the view that politics stops at the waters edge in war was they didn't wnat to elevate politics above national security or interest. Because they were Americans first, Democrats second.

I leave you to explain what the current crop of political opportunists are doing.

As a member of the US Military, I can tell you the majority of us knwo, it ain't supporting the troops.

Because the war immediately divided the country's political leadership, it made it impossible to get a true majority behind the war.

Tony Blair is having the same problem in Britain, and his tactics weren't nearly as divisive. The reason the people aren't behind the war is because they were lied to, and these lies were necessary to sell the war.

Kenneth Pollack acknowledged as much in his book, The Threatening Storm:

Assembling [an international] coalition would be infinitely easier if the United States could point to a smoking gun with Iraqi fingerprints on it – some new outrage that would serve to galvanize international opinion and create the pretext for an invasion....

An aggressive U.S. covert action campaign might provoke Saddam to retaliate overtly, providing a casus belli (one of the many ways in which covert action could complement an invasion). Other means might also be devised.... However, in the end, we will have to act regardless of whether we have a pretext or not.

As far as holding the vote "three weeks before the 2002 mid-term elections, with the obvious goal of preventing traditional mid-term losses.", in your words, you can't believe that there is ever a time, even on November 9 (the latest there could ever be a national election) when someone isn't running for something. And for that, you have Slick Willy to thank, he of the Permanent Campaign. Those of you on the left thought the permanent campaign was just fine when it was a democrat doing it, but now it's not??? My point is, it wouldn't have mattered when the vote to authorize force was conducted, it would have cut the same way.

If the democrats in the Senate actually want a withdrawal deadline, why didn't they vote for Kerry's proposal? Don't they want to be on record as supporting a withdrawal date?

I agree with Dadmanly's thoughts concerning the unlikey theory that Bush designed his war aims on a political calender. It begs the question: Did Bush also plan the murders on 9/11 for best political advantage?

To be skeptical with the theory is natural, what is more interesting is pondering the kind of perspective one must own to believe such slander. Consider; to believe that George Bush is a calculating, cold blooded killer is to assume the utter worst about a person very few people know well enough to ever make such a claim - credibly. For the rest of us, Republican, Democrat or Other, to impart motives because we are sure he is the kind of person who would seek profit on the crushed, bloody and broiled corpses of his countrymen and still live with themselves is to render everything else written by that commenter suspect. It is a terrible leap. To declare the president a monster. Worse than Hitler, for at least he had the good sense to kill foriegners.

George Bush is a politician, but a brooding egomaniac savoring the deaths of citizens and soldiers because American voters will blindly support a policy of bodybags and high gas prices?


All this makes Mr. Signer sound hysterical and conspiratorial - when the truth may be a lot less exciting. He seems a thoughtful fellow...

But then again, we are discussing a theory proffered by E.J. Dionne. And we all know how thoughtful he is...

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