By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, July 14, 2006; A21
The most intellectually honest case for the war in Iraq was never about Saddam Hussein's alleged stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. It was the Big Bang Theory.
Not to be confused with theories about the origins of the universe, the Middle East Big Bang idea was simple and seductive. Unlike other arguments for the war, it was based on some facts, though also on some wishful thinking. The point was that the Middle East was a mess. A nest of authoritarian regimes bred opposition movements rebelling against the conditions under which too many people lived and energized by a radical Islamist ideology. Some of them turned to terror. In this bog of failure, moderate Muslims were powerless. They were frequently jailed or killed.
The situation's hopelessness argued for a hard shove from the United States to create a new dynamic. Installing a democratic government in Iraq would force a new dawn. Newly empowered Muslim democrats would reform their societies, negotiate peace with Israel and get on with the business of building prosperous, middle-class societies.
It was a beautiful dream, and even when the administration was asserting things that turned out not to be true, it held the dream out there for all to contemplate.
Consider Vice President Cheney's address before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 26, 2002, one of the earliest major public arguments the administration made for war. The lead of the news stories was Cheney's claim that there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was prepared to use them. "The risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action," Cheney declared.
But then there was the delightful promise of what American success in Iraq could achieve. "Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of jihad," Cheney said. "Moderates throughout the region would take heart, and our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced."
Today, with Israeli troops battling on their northern and southern borders, with Iran ignoring calls for negotiations on nuclear weapons, with Baghdad in flames and with many of Iraq's moderates living in fear, those Cheney sentences stand as the most telling indictment of the administration's failures.
If Israelis and Palestinians were closer to peace, if Iraqi democracy showed signs of stability -- these might justify a war fought in part on the basis of false premises.
But when the Big Bang happened, the wreckage left behind took the form of reduced American influence, American armed forces stretched to their limit and a Middle East more dangerously unstable than it was at the beginning of 2003. Whether one ascribes these troubles to the flawed implementation of the Big Bang Theory or to the theory itself, what matters now is how to limit and, if possible, undo some of the damage.
That is what the American debate should be about, but those in charge of Republican campaigns this year have another idea. They have hit upon the brilliant strategy of pushing any serious discussion of the failure of American foreign policy past Election Day. For the next 3 1/2 months, they want the choice before the voters to be binary: staying the course and being "tough," or breaking with President Bush's policy and being "soft." There are just two options on the ballot, they say: firmness or "cut and run."
If I were a Republican strategist, I'd probably do the same thing. But Democrats (and, yes, the media) risk playing into Republican hands if they fail to force a discussion of the administration's larger failures or let the debate focus narrowly on exactly what date we should set for getting out of Iraq.
The case for reducing our commitment to Iraq in the interest of other and larger foreign policy purposes -- has anyone noticed the growing mess in Afghanistan? -- is built on a compelling proposition: that the administration made a huge bet on Iraq and it lost. American voters can decide to keep the gamble going, to risk more lives and money, and hope that something turns up. Or they can decide that this gamble will never deliver the winnings that those who took it on our behalf promised.
By late November of this year, the United States will have been at war in Iraq for as long as we were involved in World War II. Under those circumstances, the burden of proof should not be on those who argue for changing what we're doing. It should be on those who set a failed policy in motion and keep promising, despite the evidence, that it will somehow pay off if only we "stay the course."