What will be needed this autumn is a new bipartisan forbearance, a kind of patriotic grace. This is a great deal to hope for. The president should ask for it, and show it.
Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, will report to Congress on Sept. 11. From the latest metrics, it’s clear the surge has gained some ground. It is generally supposed that Gen. Petraeus will paint a picture of recent decreases in violent incidents and increases in safety. In another world, that might be decisive: It’s working, hang on.
At the same time, it’s clear that what we call Iraq does not wholly share U.S. objectives. We speak of it as a unitary country, but the Kurds are understandably thinking about Kurdistan, the Sunnis see an Iraq they once controlled but that no longer exists, and the Shia—who knows? An Iraq they theocratically and governmentally control, an Iraq given over to Iran? This division is reflected in what we call Iraq’s government in Baghdad. Seen in this way, the non-latest-metrics way, the situation is bleak.
Capitol Hill doesn’t want to talk about it, let alone vote on it. Lawmakers not only can’t figure a good way out, they can’t figure a good way through.
But we’re going to have to achieve some rough consensus, because we’re a great nation in an urgent endeavor. The process will begin with Gen. Petraeus’s statement.
Particular atmospherics, and personal dynamics, are the backdrop to the debate. People are imperfect, and people in politics tend to be worse: “Politics is not an ennobling profession,” as Bill Buckley once said. You’d better be pretty good going in, because it’s not going to make you better. Politicians are individuals with a thirst for power, honors, and fame. When you think about that you want to say, “Oh dear.” But of course “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
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All sides in the Iraq debate need to step up, in a new way, to the characterological plate.
From the pro-war forces, the surge supporters and those who supported the Iraq invasion from the beginning, what is needed is a new modesty of approach, a willingness to admit it hasn’t quite gone according to plan. A moral humility. Not meekness—great powers aren’t helped by meekness—but maturity, a shown respect for the convictions of others.
What we often see instead, lately, is the last refuge of the adolescent: defiance. An attitude of Oh yeah? We’re Lincoln, you’re McClellan. We care about the troops and you don’t. We care about the good Iraqis who cast their lot with us. You’d just as soon they hang from the skids of the last helicopter off the embassy roof. They have been called thuggish. Is this wholly unfair?
The antiwar forces, the surge opponents, the “I was against it from the beginning” people are, some of them, indulging in grim, and mindless, triumphalism. They show a smirk of pleasure at bad news that has been brought by the other team. Some have a terrible quaking fear that something good might happen in Iraq, that the situation might be redeemed. Their great interest is that Bushism be laid low and the president humiliated. They make lists of those who supported Iraq and who must be read out of polite society. Might these attitudes be called thuggish also?
Do you ever get the feeling that at this point Washington is run by two rival gangs that have a great deal in common with each other, including an essential lack of interest in the well-being of the turf on which they fight?
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Not only hearts and minds are invested in a particular stand. Careers are, too. Candidates are invested in a position they took; people are dug in, caught. Every member of Congress is constrained by campaign promises: “We’ll fight” or “We’ll leave.” The same for every opinion spouter—every pundit, columnist, talk show host, editorialist—all of whom have a base, all of whom pay a price for deviating from the party line, whatever the party, and whatever the line. All this freezes things. It makes immobile what should be fluid. It keeps people from thinking.
What is needed is simple maturity, a vow to look to—to care about—America’s interests in the long term, a commitment to look at the facts as they are and try to come to conclusions. This may require in some cases a certain throwing off of preconceptions, previous statements and former stands. It would certainly require the mature ability to come to agreement with those you otherwise hate, and the guts to summon the help of, and admit you need the help of, the other side.
Without this, we remain divided, and our division does nothing to help Iraq, or ourselves.
It would be good to see the president calming the waters. Instead he ups the ante. Tuesday, speaking to the American Legion, he heightened his language. Withdrawing U.S. forces will leave the Middle East overrun by “forces of radicalism and extremism”; the region would be “dramatically transformed” in a way that could “imperil” both “the civilized world” and American security.
Forgive me, but Americans who oppose the war do not here understand the president to be saying: Precipitous withdrawal will create a vacuum that will be filled by killing that will tip the world to darkness. That’s not what they hear. I think they understand him to be saying, I got you into this, I reaped the early rewards, I rubbed your noses in it, and now you have to save the situation.
His foes feel a tight-jawed bitterness. They believe it was his job not to put America in a position in which its security is imperiled; they resent his invitation to share responsibility for outcomes of decisions they opposed. And they resent it especially because he grants them nothing—no previous wisdom, no good intent—beyond a few stray words here and there.
And here’s the problem. The president’s warnings are realistic. He’s right. At the end of the day we can’t just up and leave Iraq. That would only make it worse. And it is not in the interests of America or the world that it be allowed to get worse.
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Would it help if the president were graceful, humble, and asked for help? Why, yes. Would it help if he credited those who opposed him with not only good motives but actual wisdom? Yes. And if he tried it, it would make news. It would really, as his press aides say, break through the clutter.
I don’t see how the president’s supporters can summon grace from others when they so rarely show it themselves. And I don’t see how anyone can think grace and generosity of spirit wouldn’t help. They would. They always do in big debates. And they would provide the kind of backdrop Gen. Petraeus deserves, the kind in which his words can be heard.