Wars always produce recriminations. Like a war itself, recriminations are designed to shape the political future. What follows is a brief guide to the coming finger-pointing on Iraq.
Assumption: The war ends quickly in victory and, in the initial days, large numbers of Iraqis express joy at being rid of a cruel dictator.
Recrimination: Administration supporters will charge that opponents of the war would have left Saddam Hussein in power to continue to torture and kill people. President Bush was on the side of liberation, they'll declare, while the war's opponents were timid obstructionists.
Likely Response: The modest number of war critics who were Hussein apologists or simply didn't want to face the regime's atrocities will have trouble with this one. They will keep insisting that the United States shouldn't wage war preemptively to change a regime, even a bad one. Most critics of the war were as full-throated in condemning Hussein as its supporters but faulted the administration's strategy. Yes, they'll say, it's great for the Iraqi people to be rid of Hussein. But the administration could have achieved its ends without needlessly alienating allies and making our postwar tasks more difficult (see below). Then they'll quickly change the subject to what needs to be done now to reengage the United Nations and our estranged allies in the postwar settlement.
Assumption: Even a quick American victory and a generally happy Iraqi populace do nothing to assuage antiwar voices in the Democratic Party who can't stand Bush and are furious at Democratic candidates -- Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and John Edwards -- who voted for his war.
Recrimination: These cowards or warmongers -- take your pick -- allowed Bush to manipulate them into giving him a blank check, the antiwarriors will declare. Democrats who caved should be punished in the primaries. Antiwar candidate Howard Dean won't quite say this, but he devoutly hopes others will.
Likely Response: Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt will argue that the fast end to the war proves they were right and that Democrats need to be tough on foreign policy if they want a hearing for their attacks on Bush over his failures at home. But they will quickly pivot to criticisms of Bush's handling of postwar Iraq -- yes, that will be a recurring theme -- and insist they would have handled the lead-up to the war far more shrewdly.
Kerry can't cede the antiwar vote entirely to Dean, so he'll push the critical side of this two-step harder. He'll wear the scorn Republicans heaped on him over his call for "regime change" in Washington as a badge of honor. Who better than a war hero, he argued indirectly last week, to challenge Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and others who didn't bleed in war as he did?
The wild cards are Florida Sen. Bob Graham and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Graham is a hawk who voted against the war and might confound everybody. Clark could come into the race with new name recognition won on CNN, where he carefully balanced strong support for his military comrades with selected criticisms of the administration. In any event, all Democrats are hoping that as soon as the war ends, it's the economy, stupid, again.
Assumption: The war ends in victory. Iraqis quickly move to the struggle for power. Some Iraqis want the Americans out fast; others hide behind us to settle scores. Americans ask the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds, "Why can't you just get along?" But they don't.
Recrimination: Why did the Bushies pretend everything would be so easy? Why didn't we have a debate before the war about how we'd handle this? Why was the administration so secretive about its plans?
Likely Response: Administration supporters will return relentlessly to the basic point: That despite all the trouble, Iraq and the world are better off without Hussein. The more evidence there is that he had chemical and biological weapons the better. And Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, is already trying to make sure he won't be blamed for pretending things would be easy. On "Meet the Press" Sunday, he said it took the Kurds six months to achieve a degree of decent self-rule back in 1991. "I'm not saying we'll achieve that," he said, "but our goal really is as quickly as possible but not faster than is possible to help the Iraqis stand on their own feet." As quickly as possible, but not faster than is possible -- can't go wrong with that.
And if you've noticed that all these postwar positions sound an awful lot like the positions people took before the war started, you have grasped the point of recriminations. Politics usually means having to say: I was right all along.