Last week's comments on Iraq by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to the effect that "this war is lost," mirror the dysfunctional thinking of the Bush regime. I stand with Congressional Democrats who oppose the White House's conduct of Iraq policy, but Mr. Reid's critique is at best a poor political strategy for effecting a remedy. Mr. Bush persists in casting Iraq as a "win or lose" situation, but this logic is itself one of the reasons why the US remains mired in a strategic deadfall in Iraq. Declaring the war "lost" only throws gasoline on the fire of delusion that the Bush White House has ignited and keeps stoking.
If Democrats agree with Mr. Bush that Iraq is a "win-lose" scenario and insist that the only aspect in which the President is wrong is that we have already "lost," they will find their political support among the American electorate evaporating. Americans may be very disenchanted with the reasons why the US invaded Iraq, but they remain persuaded when supporters of the Iraq policy like Senator McCain assert that the consequences of failure in Iraq would be too dire to tolerate. If the electorate is faced with a choice between someone who declares the war "lost" and someone who professes to have a plan to "win," no matter how implausible, they will choose the latter.
To prevail in the political arena Democrats must point out that every aspect of Bush policy concerning Iraq is erroneous, including the regime's insistence on viewing the crisis as a "win-lose" conflict. No one can win or lose in Iraq except the Iraqi people themselves, the only meaningful long term gauge of outcomes in Iraq is the stable political system that eventually emerges from the current instability. That system may be very different from what US leaders had hoped to establish in Iraq in 2003, but there is little chance that the groups fighting US forces in Iraq today will control or even have much of a hand in shaping that emergent government. In the end, no matter what US leaders do, it will not be the US that prevents groups like Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army from controlling Iraq, it will be the inherent dynamic of Iraqi society itself.
As long as US soldiers stay in Iraq, social forces in Iraq are not wholly free to negotiate a new political order. Once US soldiers depart, a negotiation will ensue that will determine the stable shape of the Iraqi state. This negotiation may be a very violent one, and it may produce a government that would be an unhappy one for the Iraqi people. The worst case scenario is probably a government much like that of Saddam Hussein, only led by a Shi'ite military officer who is slightly less anti-American than that latter despot. The US can not ultimately control whether such an outcome occurs. However, the likelihood of this worst-case scenario depends in part on the manner in which the US disengages from Iraq. What the US must do now is to disengage from Iraq in a manner that best facilitates the evolution of Iraqi politics along progressive lines. The recognition of this reality is not an admission of defeat, it is a resolution to do what is right both for the security of the US and the liberty and prosperity of the Iraqi people.
This is the case that the Democrats must take to the American people. It is a more complicated one to make, and it requires discussing the particulars of the Iraqi political situation with more detail and nuance than has ever been expressed by the Bush administration. To do less, however, is not only to paternalistically scorn the intellectual faculties of the American people, it will be a gross tactical miscalculation at the polls. Americans are concerned enough to want leadership in these troubled times, and they are smart enough to know real leadership when they see it. Mr. Reid's comments do not express real leadership. They follow the logic of Mr. Bush's rhetoric, and if Mr. Reid is going to follow the President the American people will take his example.
It is imperative that America acquire new leadership in the coming election. As critical as I may be of Mr. Reid and other Democratic leaders, I remain a committed partisan out of the conviction that the Democrats could only do better, on both foreign and domestic policy fronts, than the depths to which Republican leadership has brought us since the election of 2000. Because the stakes in the 2008 election are so high, I would implore Democratic leaders to genuinely differentiate themselves from the Rovian politics of the Bush era. Give the American people the benefit of the doubt, you will be surprised at the results.