In April 2001 I was invited to Washington, D.C., by a group of Republican Congressmen collectively known as the Theme Team. The subject was Iraq. It seems that the Theme Team, responsible for monitoring the ideological pulse of America, was somewhat perturbed that a self-described Republican and former Marine officer, not to mention a former UN weapons inspector, was trash-talking America's Iraq policy. While this sort of action might have been acceptable during the tenure of a Democratic President like Bill Clinton, it was not part of the grand design when it came to the presidency of George W. Bush.
The conference room was packed with more than seventy Representatives and their staffs. I provided an opening in which I stressed that the case being made against Saddam Hussein and Iraq, centered as it was on the issue of WMD, did not hold water. I chastised the Republican lawmakers with a warning: If they continued to support the policy of confronting Saddam's Iraq over a trumped-up charge, they would not only get America involved in a war it could not win but would end up destroying the credibility of the Republican Party, and turn control of the Congress, and eventually the Presidency, to the Democrats. There were questions asked, and answers given, and in the end most thanked me for what they called an "illuminating" meeting.
Then they proceeded to do nothing.
Today that warning has become reality. America is bogged down in a losing war in Iraq, the Republican Party lies in shambles over its partisan support of a policy that was never debated or discussed, but rather rubber-stamped, and the Democrats now control the Senate and the House of Representatives. There is a very real chance that the Democrats will take control of the presidency in 2008, since the debacle that is Iraq will not be resolved prior to that date.
President Bush will go down in history with complete ownership of the Iraq War. The Republican Party will also be tarnished by this legacy. It doesn't matter that the policies of sanctions-based containment and regime change, which set in motion the events leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, were conceived of and implemented by Clinton, or that the Democrats in Congress were as complicit (and incompetent) in their support of those policies through their "bipartisan" support of both the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 (which set America's policy toward Iraq as regime change) and the War Authorization Resolution of 2002, which punted away Congress's constitutional responsibilities when it came to the declaration of war. To most Americans, the war in Iraq is a Republican war, and blame has been placed squarely at the doorstep of the Republican Commander-in-Chief who got us there, George W. Bush.
In his recent State of the Union address, Bush spent a great deal of time speaking about Iraq and his plans for how to achieve "victory" there. The Democrats, in their various responses, rightly criticized the President and his plans as unrealistic and insupportable. The stage has been set for an old-fashioned showdown between executive and legislative power, where the advantages are stacked in favor of those who control the power of the purse (i.e., Congress), since the President's new "surge" strategy hinges not only on the availability of troops to be surged but also on the money to pay for it.
When it comes to Iraq, newly-empowered Democrats in Congress are getting a free ride, so to speak. While the honorable (and right) thing to do would be to combine their just criticism of the President's policy with a vision (and corresponding plan) of their own on how to proceed in Iraq, the Democrats instead seem to have taken the less risky and more politically savvy path of simply pointing an accusatory finger at the President, demanding that he fix what he broke. There is no coherent, broad-based Democratic plan for Iraq other than to criticize the President. In the case of Iraq, Democrats have demonstrated that they are just as capable of letting American service members die in order to preserve their own political ambition as their Republican counterparts are.
While this is abominable, the Democrats will most likely get away with it. After all, the horror that is present-day Iraq did not happen on their watch. Iraq is a Republican debacle and it will continue to play out as such, politically, on the domestic front.
If I were to be invited to go to Washington today and speak to the Democratic equivalent of the Republican Theme Team, I would spend very little time on the issue of Iraq. Right or wrong, the Iraq War was a product of domestic American politics, not any genuine threat to national security, and as such the solution for Iraq will be derived not from whatever happens inside Iraq, surge or no surge, but rather from what happens here in America. It will take two or more national election cycles for the American electorate to purge Congress of those elements, Republican and Democratic alike, who are responsible for the Iraqi quagmire.
Until American politicians from either party show that they care more about the lives of the men and women in the armed forces who operate in harm's way than they do about their own political fortunes, we will remain in Iraq. It takes courage to stand up against this war when the tide of public opinion continues to hold out hope for victory. "Doing the right thing" is a thing of the past, it seems. "Doing the politically expedient thing" is the current trend. The American public may have articulated frustration with the course of events in Iraq, but this feeling is derived more from a frustration at being defeated than from any moral outrage over getting involved in a war that didn't need to be fought in the first place. Congress takes its cues from the American people, and until the American people are as outraged over the mere fact we are in Iraq as they are over the rising costs of the conflict — human, moral and financial — then Congress will continue to dither.
If I were to address a Democrat Theme Team equivalent, I would focus my effort on trying to impress them with the issue that will cost them political power down the road. This issue is Iran. While President Bush, a Republican, remains Commander-in-Chief, a Democrat-controlled Congress shares responsibility on war and peace from this point on. The conflict in Iraq, although ongoing, is a product of the Republican-controlled past. The looming conflict with Iran, however, will be assessed as a product of a Democrat-controlled present and future. If Iraq destroyed the Republican Party, Iran will destroy the Democrats.