When it comes to Iraq, are the congressional Democrats chicken-hearted flip-floppers, merely clueless critics with no ideas of their own -- or are they Karl Rove cunning?
It's clear enough what the administration would have you believe: that congressional Democrats, privy to the same information then possessed by the administration, voted to go to war in Iraq. Now that the war has proved difficult and unpopular, they want to lay the whole burden for it on the president -- a latter-day version of John Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it."
The characterization seems wrong on virtually every count. Congress didn't have the same information the administration had; it had the information -- and the analysis of that information -- that the administration opted to share. The choices, really, were to share the administration's conclusion that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction or to accuse it of cooking the evidence.
But when events suggested just such culinary hanky-panky, how can it be considered inconstant or duplicitous to second-guess the earlier pro-war vote?
Colin Powell, who -- unwittingly, I believe -- passed along some of the cooked evidence, is on record as having changed his mind. As Powell told Barbara Walters in September, when he made his dramatic show-and-tell presentation before the U.N. Security Council, there were "people in the intelligence community who knew at the time that some of these sources were not good and shouldn't be relied upon, and they didn't speak up. That devastated me. . . . It's a blot . . . [that] will always be a part of my record."
Powell is nobody's flip-flopper. People who wanted a certain conclusion gave him bad information and he passed it on -- to his regret. Can't members of Congress who believed the bad evidence enough to vote us into war also experience regret?
Except they didn't really vote us into war. As I recall, that vote authorizing the president to use force against Iraq was analogous to a trade union's strike vote. When negotiations bog down, union leaders often will ask their members for a resolution authorizing a strike. For members to refuse such a vote would cripple their own leadership. But to grant it is not the same as ending negotiations and launching a strike. It is a way of steeling the leadership, giving it a powerful negotiating tool.
Since there was no about-to-explode crisis, the president could have asked Congress for a declaration of war. Would it have been granted? Who knows? Apparently the administration didn't want to chance it.
Now several things have the administration lashing out in all directions in an attempt at political salvage. Public opinion polls show both the popularity of the president and confidence that the war in Iraq was justified at a low ebb. The war itself is going badly, with our forces apparently spending the bulk of their effort to protect themselves against the insurgents, and with more people -- ours and Iraq's -- dying every week.
And Rep. John P. Murtha, a pro-military Democrat and decorated Vietnam veteran, has called unequivocally for the allied forces to quit Iraq.
So how do the Republicans respond? Sometimes by direct attack, as when they tried to discredit Murtha as a coward. But given a president whose National Guard service was suspect at best and a vice president who was garnering draft deferments while Murtha served, that couldn't work.
And sometimes by simply noting that the Democrats don't have an exit strategy, either.
Of course they don't.
If the Democrats had their own Karl Rove, he'd probably tell them not to even try to come up with one. If a sound exit plan means getting out without leaving Iraq less stable than it is now, and with a reasonable chance of becoming an American-style democracy, nobody has one.
If Iraq is most likely to implode into civil war, leaving it a far more dangerous hotbed of terrorism than it was before our invasion, wouldn't the Democrats be smart to let it happen without interference? That isn't to say the Democrats yearn for failure -- but it's a cinch they don't want to be blamed for it.
It would be a no-lose position, politically, for the Democrats to sit back and watch the catastrophe happen.
But the quagmire in Iraq involves much more than politics. It involves national honor, the undiminished threat of international terrorism -- and the lives of too many people who deserve better.
It's hardly the time for clever politics.