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Hindsight in Iraq

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 6, 2005

We were so stupid that we let our idiot president and an Arab con man fool us on a life-and-death issue.

As a campaign theme for elections in 2006 and 2008, that proposition may lack a little something. Yet Democrats who supported the invasion of Iraq but now cannot support the consequences of their vote are flirting with it. To them, good night, and good luck.

I doubt that swing voters will buy an admission of faux gullibility as a rationale for supporting Democrats over Republicans. Even when stated in slightly more elegant form, as it must be, that argument trivializes and falsifies the serious debate that did occur over Saddam Hussein's capabilities and intentions. Making President Bush's alleged "lies" on prewar intelligence the campaign focal point also underlines the failure of the Democrats to come up with convincing alternative policies for Iraq and the Middle East.

Worse: A backward-looking strategy obscures the political progress that Iraqis are making against terrorist bombings and assassinations.

Americans already know too little about the process of coalition-building and public campaigning underway for Iraq's December elections. That process represents the best chance to reduce American troop levels and unwanted U.S. political hegemony in Iraq. Flinging dust in the American electorate's eyes can only produce harmful results.

There is an enormous amount to criticize and reexamine about the conduct of the war and the misbegotten, heavy-handed occupation that has followed. One politician who has consistently done that responsibly is Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who nonetheless believes that the war is still winnable. That is the fundamental question for critics and supporters, Democrats and Republicans, to debate today.

"If winning is defined as having a free, independent, self-governing nation in Iraq, I think that is still possible. But the options are evaporating for America to influence that outcome if changes are not made," Hagel said in an interview.

"We have to stop isolating ourselves in the world and use Iraq to shore up alliances instead of damage them. And we have to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam, especially simultaneously propping up and manipulating a corrupt local regime that could not defend itself," he added.

Iraqi voters defied the terrorist campaign to adopt a new democratic constitution last month. In recent days the national election commission has registered party lists and candidates for the December elections for a permanent government. This progression carries promise for the future.

The Sunni minority, which boycotted January's transitional elections, shows every sign of voting in greater numbers this time. This will help encourage the creation of cross-sectarian coalitions, as does the awarding of parliament seats on a provincial rather than a national level.

This in turn opens new vistas for two Shiite secular politicians, Ayad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi, who will compete head to head for Sunni support in Baghdad province and then need to bargain for Kurdish support to form a government. Chalabi and other Shiite leaders are moving away from the Islamic bloc that won in January and that dominates the current government but is unpopular with the Kurds.

Chalabi? Isn't he the aforesaid Arab con man of journalistic and political lore who tricked alert politicians such as Jay Rockefeller, and the entire CIA, into believing Hussein was moments away from blowing them to kingdom come? The same guy who provided the opportunity for shallow journalistic exposs and a magazine cover -- on the Columbia Journalism Review, of all places -- that were redolent with whiffs of anti-Arab stereotyping that would have been denounced if other ethnic groups had been so targeted?

Yes, Chalabi is back, in Iraq and in Washington. He visits here this week at the invitation of an administration that listened to him before the war -- except of course when he opposed the occupation and other things they wanted to do -- and then tried to eliminate him from Iraqi politics in Allawi's favor. I know, the story line gets confusing, but remember, we are in Valerie Plame deep-cover territory here.

The visit would be a good occasion for the American public to catch up on the thing that interests Hagel -- the chances of democracy in Iraq -- and on how Chalabi would hurry American troops home. Rockefeller, Harry Reid and other Democrats could ask him in person how he so brilliantly tricked them, and then explain that in detail to their constituents.

But I suspect the story line will be the easy irony of Chalabi resurfacing and the faux gullibility thing, even if it has to be sold in defiance of the facts. Who wants facts when you can have fun?

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