The Politics of War

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, November 14, 2005

Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's vice president, may seem a bit unfeeling as he assesses the ongoing violence in his country. It is very hard, he says -- but better than during Saddam Hussein's day, when, Mahdi says, each year 30,000 Iraqis were executed or assassinated by the regime or killed in the dictator's wars.

It may sound unfeeling, that is, until you remember that, just days before Mahdi's visit to Washington last week, his older brother was killed in a drive-by shooting.

This he does not speak about quite so matter-of-factly. But Mahdi, who was imprisoned and then exiled by Hussein, puts even this fresh murder in historical context. "My brother always suffered," Mahdi said. "Whenever they had a problem with me, they would detain him, they would torture him . . .

"They waged terrorism from within the government," Mahdi added. "Now they are waging the same attacks, as an opposition, from the streets. . . . These are the same methods, practiced by the same people."

A Shiite political leader with a good chance of becoming prime minister after next month's elections, Mahdi brought to Washington a familiar complaint: that the U.S. media and their audience focus exclusively on the bad news, ignoring Iraq's "tremendous achievements." Turnout was high in Iraq's first election, higher for its constitutional referendum and will be higher still, he said, in the December vote -- all despite death threats to anyone who votes. In the face of terror, Iraq's progress toward democracy is unprecedented in the Middle East.

But, he says, Iraq and the United States are "victims of different agendas."

"Iraq's is a life-or-death agenda -- how to build a democracy," Mahdi said. "Others' are political agendas."

Whether Iraqis are in fact committed to a life-or-death struggle for democracy will become clear as its army does, or does not, continue to shoulder a greater burden. But the aptness of Mahdi's view of the United States is already evident in Congress, which pours most of its Iraq-related energy into allegations of manipulated intelligence before the war.

"Those aren't irrelevant questions," says Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). "But the more they dominate the public debate, the harder it is to sustain public support for the war."

What Lieberman doesn't say is that many Democrats would view such an outcome as an advantage. Their focus on 2002 is a way to further undercut President Bush, and Bush's war, without taking the risk of offering an alternative strategy -- to satisfy their withdraw-now constituents without being accountable for a withdraw-now position.

Many of them understand that dwindling public support could force the United States into a self-defeating position, and that defeat in Iraq would be disastrous for the United States as well as for Mahdi and his countrymen. But the taste of political blood as Bush weakens, combined with their embarrassment at having supported the war in the first place, seems to override that understanding.

The Democrats could be responsible and fiercely critical, too, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has shown throughout the war. When they pull a stunt such as insisting on a secret Senate session, it could be to debate Bush's policies on torture and detention. They could ask whether everything possible is being done to furnish the Iraqi army with protective armor. They could question whether anyone inside the administration is focusing with the same urgency on prodding Iraqi politicians toward compromise as are America's ambassador and top generals in the field.

Individual Democratic senators have focused on individual questions such as these (for example, Michigan's Carl Levin on torture), but for the caucus and its leader, Harry Reid (Nev.), the key questions are all about history.

"We're at war, and we've got to remind ourselves of that from time to time," Lieberman said. And not just, or even mostly, Democrats, Lieberman stressed last week at an Aspen Institute forum: "It really has to start, ought to start, with the administration."

President Bush can lash out at the Democrats, as he did Friday, but ultimately they are mostly exploiting public opinion; he is largely responsible for shaping it. And had he been more honest from the start about the likely difficulties of war, readier to deal with them and then more open in acknowledging his failures, the public likely would be more patient.

A true wartime president, Lieberman said, would reach out regularly to congressional leaders of both parties. He would explain strategy, admit mistakes, be open to suggestions.

That hasn't happened -- which goes a long way toward explaining why a war that should be understood as life-or-death for Americans too has become, as Mahdi said in more polite terms, a political football.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company