We Win: Then What?
Posted by Suzanne Nossel
Whether progressives triumph in one or two houses of Congress tomorrow, they will immediately face tough questions about what to do next on the thorny foreign policy questions that have dominated the campaign. Here are ten quick pieces of advice:
1. Don't Overstate the Influence of Congress Over Foreign Policy Making - Foreign policy is the responsibility of the executive branch. Even in the majority, progressives will not be at the helm and shouldn't pretend to be. Particularly given the hard-headedness of this administration (Dick Cheney's "full steam ahead" comment on Iraq yesterday epitomizes it) progressives should not pretend to enjoy more sway than they do. For example, there's been lots of talk of a regional conference to activate Iraq's neighbors on behalf of stability. That will be tough to make work, but especially so for an Administration that still won't admit what's gone wrong.
2. Don't Let Anyone Forget How We Got Here - The reason the American public is contemplating switching horses absent what many pundits thought was essential to progressive victory: namely, a consensus plan for Iraq, is that they have come to blame the Administration for creating an insoluble crisis. Iraq will get likely get worse before it gets better, and a changeover on Capital Hill cannot undo most of the mistakes already made. We need a bipartisan approach to digging out from the crisis, but should not lose sight of who got us into it.
3. Don't Expect an Easy Out From Iraq - Lots of progressives have been speaking as though some tough talk to the al-Maliki government in Iraq will get it to step up to the plate, get security under control, and allow us to exit without a complete meltdown into sectarian violence. While I don't pretend to know to what degree the Iraqi government's failings are attributable to lack of will versus lack of competence, it seems certain that regardless, the problem will not be solved. While it may make good campaign rhetoric, its not plausible that the government is willfully allowing their country to devolve into chaos but, with the right stern words, will suddenly reverse course and get things under control. Short of that all scenarios are pretty bleak.
4. Be Honest with the American Public - Half-truths got us into Iraq, but they won't get us out. With greater control in the Congress, progressives will have the authority to unpack the Administration's statements and claims and let the public in on the truth about how the war effort is going, what the likely consequences of withdrawal will be, and what needs to be done to mitigate them.
5. Look for a Handful of Tangible Ways to Push Policy in the Right Direction - Rather than trying to pull off a miracle in Iraq, progressives should focus on preventing the White House from digging us deeper into the whole, and on some tangible steps to address the worst of the policy lapses. A few specifics:
5.a Lead on Afghanistan - Rapid deterioration in political and security conditions in Afghanistan is a disaster in the making, yet out-and-out crisis is still preventable. The NATO Commander in Chief is begging for more help training troops and police and building up civil society. The Administration has not had the bandwidth for Afghanistan to be more than an afterthought, but progressives in Congress could change this.
5.b Take a Hard-Line on Corruption and Waste in Iraq and Elsewhere - Friday's headline that the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction was being shunted from office is the latest evidence of the Administration's utter disregard for the rights of taxpayers who are funding the Iraq War, and its compulsion to protect defense contractors and lax Pentagon overseers.
5.c Support the Troops - Overblown though it was, Senator Kerry's accidental insult to the troops serving in Iraq had an undercurrent of truth to it: our military is manned disproportionately by Americans who enjoy less means and fewer educational opportunities. There have been numerous proposals to limit the burdens of extended deployment, reinvigorate the GI bill and improve benefits for veterans.
5.d Talk Directly to the Military - Our men and women in uniform are taking brave steps to make themselves heard in the Iraq debate. They are the best source of information about what's gone wrong and whether and how it can be fixed. Their support will be essential to the success of any progressive attempts at course correction. Building up these ties will also pay political dividends in the long-term.
5.e Iraq Damage Control - Regardless of when America's pull-out from Iraq begins, the central challenge going forward will be to minimize the inevitable chaos that reins now and will prevail in our wake. By expediting priority reconstruction projects, pushing for a political settlement to govern Iraqi oil revenues, and advocating greater engagement by Iraq's neighbors in the stabilization process, progressives can pave the way for a smoother withdrawal, regardless of whose watch it happens on.