The Democrats lost the election of 2004 not because millions of bigoted red necks stormed the polls to protest gay marriage, as the self-serving liberal mythology would have it. The Democrats lost because on the crucial issue of national security, their party was tested and found wanting. In the wake of this defeat, a few voices in the wilderness, like The New Republic's Peter Beinart, argued for a realignment of the Democratic Party to reflect the country's more hawkish stance on national security. In charging the Bush administration with deceiving the United States into a war with Iraq, it would appear the Democrats have fixed on a more ambitious strategy: realigning the public to reflect Howard Dean's stance on national security.
Like a full moon, the "Bush lied" meme has waxed and waned since 2002: waxing with the ascendancy of Michael Moore, waning in the aftermath of Iraq's first successful election. This bad moon is rising again only this time it's the members of the Democrats' senior leadership that are doing the howling. Why, in November 2005, are congressional Democrats fixated on the debates of October 2002? The answers Democrats will offer are circumstantial: the pre-war debate is timely again because of the indictment of the vice president's chief of staff and complaints over the delay of "Phase II" of the Senate's report on pre-war intelligence.
However, there's something far more dishonest and irresponsible at work. Liberal Democrats want an expedited withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, pegged to a clear timetable. It is what their vocal base, typified by the lionized war widow Cindy Sheehan, has been demanding since the war began. It is also what several anti-war Senators, like Russell Feingold and Ted Kennedy, have been advocating for months. Yet this position is not an easy sell, even to a public that now says the Iraq war was a mistake.
When asked in November by a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll whether U.S. troops should leave Iraq and come home now or "stay and finish the job," 55 percent of Americans said "stay." That number has budged only slightly since August, when 58 percent agreed with "finishing the job."
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallop poll also asked Americans about withdrawing from Iraq. Thirty eight percent said they favored "taking as long as needed to withdraw" (the closest position to the Bush administration) while 19 percent agreed with "withdraw now" and 33 percent agreed with a 12 month pull-out. In another crucial metric -- whether the U.S. can prevail in Iraq -- 46 percent of those polled said the U.S. would "definitely" or "probably" win while 33 percent said we could not. Interestingly, 17 percent said that the U.S. "can win, but won't" indicating that more people think the effort is salvageable than those who think failure a foregone conclusion.
So while American opinion has soured on the war, there is still uncertainty about the way forward. Further complicating the issue for liberal Democrats, an expedited withdrawal is also a tough sell among their own party's foreign policy elite. The Democrats' "strategic class" -- foreign policy leaders like Delaware Senator Joseph Biden and Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, and former Clinton policy hands like Kenneth Pollack and UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke -- have cautioned against a hasty withdrawal amid fixed timetables.
Turning this tide of public and party opinion toward the Dean wing, then, is a formidable task. Some Democrats, like the aforementioned Russell Feingold, have sought to sway the public with reasonable and straightforward arguments for why, in their view, an expedited withdrawal from Iraq pegged to clear timetables is the best course of action. Regardless of where you stand on the merits of that strategy, it is a strategy, and one well within the bounds of reasonable opposition.
But that's not what Senate minority leader Harry Reid is saying when he asserted on November 7 that "the American people have seen continued evidence that they were misled about the war in Iraq and that intelligence information was manipulated...." It's not what Carl Levin is arguing when he charged Bush with "deception." It's not what Howard Dean was doing when he told Tim Russert that "the truth is that the president misled America when he sent us to war."
Talk of "deliberate manipulations" and "distortions" and "lies" are not arguments about a viable alternative to Bush's Iraq strategy. They're sledgehammers directed at the war's very legitimacy. These Senators are attempting to advance their preferred policy not in a straight-up argument on the merits, but by casting the entire enterprise as illegitimate. If Senators Reid and Levin truly believe that Bush "cooked up a war in Texas" (as their reliably hyperbolic colleague from Massachusetts claimed) then they shouldn't be calling for "answers." They should be calling for impeachment.
There is no graver charge than accusing the president of sending the country into war and young men and women to their death over a lie. It is not an allegation to be flung about casually. That Democrats have aired it so promiscuously without following such allegations to their logical (read: impeachable) end proves they're not serious about the charge. They're merely using it as a proxy for undermining the public's support for the war so that their preferred strategy of an expedited withdrawal becomes more palatable. Call it the Democrat's "Vietnamization" strategy. Only after the public is disgusted with both the war and its architects can the Democrats peddle their unpopular alternative. This also exonerates the 29 Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam: they weren't wrong, you see, they were hoodwinked by a "cabal" (a word, may I add, that has officially jumped the shark).
But the Vietnamizaton strategy is every bit as irresponsible as President Bush and Vice President Cheney have asserted. It's not irresponsible because it's being raised while troops are in the field. Pace Cheney, U.S. troops are tough enough to endure the slings and arrows of Harry Reid. It's irresponsible because it's not true. Bush's case for war against Iraq was not built on a towering mountain of deception. This is not to exonerate how Bush "sold the war." The administration did indeed gloss over the various dissents and caveats contained in the intelligence reports regarding Iraq's WMD. But it strains credulity to suggest, as the Democrats do, that these caveats and inter-agency doubts about select pieces of our intelligence would have tipped the scales of public opinion against war and punctured the group think surrounding Iraq's WMD arsenal.
Do Democrats really believe that these doubts and dissents were so powerful as to beat back the consensus view of two presidential administrations, the majority of Congress and the American people and the intelligence services of our major allies? No one can answer that, of course, but one can guess. Indeed, it beggars belief that in the context of the debate that occurred in October 2002 -- when those Senators like Carl Levin now pushing the "Bush lied" meme were adamant in their belief that Saddam possessed WMD -- that a full airing of the doubts and questions regarding U.S. intelligence estimates would have produced a different outcome. It's not simply because such doubts are attendant on nearly all intelligence, it's because Bush specifically argued that in a post 9/11 environment, the U.S. would no longer set the bar for action at complete, irrefutable certitude.
Indeed, Bush's case for forcefully removing Saddam centered not only on his reputed storehouse of WMD, but on America's reduced tolerance for pernicious security threats emanating from the Middle East. In multiple speeches leading up to the war, the President and members of his administration sketched out a doctrine whereby the U.S. would be compelled to act to remove a threat even if the intelligence was not dispositive. We would never have complete certainty about the exact designs of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration said, but given the long history of belligerency, WMD development and use, and support for terrorism, Saddam was longer afforded the benefit of the doubt in a post 9/11 world.
Many Democrats disagreed with that doctrine then, and a great deal more do now (and some Republicans, too). They are entitled to recant. They are entitled -- obligated even -- to present an alternative to Bush's Iraq strategy. But they are not entitled to dishonestly subvert the war's legitimacy to achieve their ends.