Needed: Honesty on Iraq
Iraq is the moral quagmire of the past quarter-century for American presidents and politicians. Every attempt by our leaders to ignore, manipulate or resolve with brute force that country's deep conflicts has quickly come back to haunt its architect with unanticipated consequences and new, agonizing choices.
So it is no wonder that Americans are weary of having troops in such a place and are not eager to face up to the bloody dilemmas that an immediate U.S. withdrawal would spark. Iraqis have always found inventive ways to punish the indifference, cravenness or rash miscalculations that successive U.S. leaders have visited on them.
We do not lack reminders of those actions and inactions: Today marks the 20th anniversary of a barbaric chemical weapons attack on Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan. That war crime was part of the genocidal campaign by Saddam Hussein that the Reagan and first Bush administrations did little to prevent or to punish. They reaped Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait as reward.
Bill Clinton used sanctions and pinprick missile attacks that helped protect the Kurds and Iraq's Arab neighbors. But those tactics also had the effect of aiding Hussein in grinding into dust any remaining social cohesion in the country. George W. Bush's grievously mismanaged occupation -- and blatant political use of the war issue in the 2004 elections -- undermined his promises to bring democracy to the Arab world.
The Iraq trap now reaches out to ensnare those Americans who would be president. It invites Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain to be expedient -- instead of being frank -- about the problems ahead. They are tempted to avoid serious discussion on the campaign trail by portraying the moral choices on Iraq as easy and clear instead of acknowledging them as the tangled knots they are. Tactics crowd out strategy and purpose in such a campaign.
Iraq is not the only foreign policy issue that the candidates are temporizing on or even shielding from a real discussion with the electorate. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which balances on the edge of a devastating explosion, has imposed a similar blanket of conformity on the three, who compete to portray themselves as Israel's truest supporter. They spread land mines along the path of a future presidency on this as well by not saying the obvious: On this problem, fresh thinking is badly needed.
Obama and Clinton both recently flunked a symbolically important moral test on Iraq. They implicitly conspired to gloss over the hard questions on an American withdrawal that were raised publicly by Samantha Power, an Obama adviser who was quickly ousted by the campaign for going way off message in a pair of interviews with British media.
Power's exasperated and hyperbolic description of Hillary Clinton as "a monster" was featured in the headlines as her firing offense. But Power's sensible admission to BBC television that Obama's tightly scripted Iraq withdrawal plan is a "best-case scenario" that would be reviewed once he became president was the more serious problem for her boss. Obama was immediately accused by Clinton of again promising one thing while planning another.
Clinton could have used Power's remarks on Iraq -- which actually parallel the New York senator's description of what she would do as president -- as an occasion for a serious exchange with Obama and with the voters. Instead she took the easy route of going for transitory political advantage.
But Obama comes off even worse. He lacked the moral courage to defend Power's realistic and sagacious statements. His retreat instead inflates the idea that he is chaining himself to his campaign rhetoric if he gets to the Oval Office, come what may.
He shouldn't, and I would guess that he won't. But like Clinton, and like the past four U.S. presidents, Obama may overestimate his ability to wiggle out of positions that ignore the power of local forces to limit him to choices that range from bad to awful.
John McCain's heavy emphasis on the military tactics of the surge providing a clear "victory" runs these same risks. Such a narrow approach also skirts serious discussion of the moral obligations and dilemmas that Iraq still poses for Americans. McCain would do well to turn those obligations into a major theme for the fall general election race.
Getting elected is the priority objective of these three politicians, of course. But they and their followers cannot afford to believe that walking away from difficult positions comes cost-free. Insulting the future is a particularly dangerous exercise in Iraq.