Ever since the Bush administration embarked upon its Iraq venture, it has taken a strict, inflexible line on the past: Forget about it.
Given the unending string of catastrophic misjudgments by President Bush and his national security team, future generations will be aghast to learn that the first member of the president's inner circle to leave this administration — White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. — was one unassociated with a war that has dramatically weakened America's standing, America's economy and America's security.
The administration's desire to avoid drawing attention to Iraq is not surprising. Children fib to cover their tracks; Catholic bishops juggle their priests to do so; and corporate executives shift the focus to next year's profit forecasts to avoid this year's bottom line. It is the rare individual in public life who acknowledges responsibility for error without being forced to do so — John F. Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs and Dwight Eisenhower in anticipation of an unsuccessful Normandy landing are two examples that come to mind.
But even more remarkable than the administration's convenient amnesia these last two years has been the seeming reluctance of foreign policy veterans in the Democratic Party to challenge it. Democratic critics of the administration, for the most part, have been cowed into making either "constructive," forward-looking comments or none at all.
There are many understandable reasons for the Democrats' relative quiet; opposition parties have a notoriously difficult time finding an appropriate voice in wartime. But these reasons must be overcome, or both the United States and the Democratic Party will suffer the consequences.
On the occasions when critics have challenged the Bush administration, of course, its officials have done a brilliant job of turning defense into offense. They argue that those who insist on looking back — which is derided as "rehashing" and "dwelling on the past" — are undermining U.S. security.
Those who dare question whether Bush's doctrine of spreading democracy around the globe is working out as planned are caricatured as longing for a return to an era of torture and tyranny.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified on Capitol Hill in February, one Senate Democrat asked whether electoral gains by Islamists were harming U.S. interests. Rice responded by suggesting that the senator found it "preferable" to stick with "dictators like Saddam Hussein, who put 300,000 people in mass graves." When the senator pressed the matter, Rice said the question "assumes that the Middle East was safer when ideologies of hatred produced people that flew airplanes into our buildings on 9/11."
There were, it seemed, only two ways forward in the Middle East: the Bush way and the mass death way.
But there are other reasons besides Republican spin for the Democrats' lack of resonance. Initially, when the WMD didn't turn up, many Democrats refrained from comment because so many of them — 29 in the Senate and 81 in the House — had voted for the resolution to authorize the war and thus felt implicated in the blunder. And prominent Democrats feared that they would undermine the morale of U.S. troops in harm's way. When Bill Clinton was asked in 2003 about Bush's erroneous claims about Niger yellowcake, he urged Americans to focus on the future. "You know, everybody makes mistakes when they are president," he said.
Democrats have also been silenced by Republican control of Congress. Because they cannot call hearings or subpoena witnesses, the accountability they can demand is drastically limited.
Today, leading Democrats would be heard and hailed if they had a solution to offer on Iraq. But because all the options are bad options, and the American people want to hear good options, Democrats are reluctant to cry over spilled milk (and blood). With U.S. troops destined to remain in harm's way for the foreseeable future — even if at reduced strength — dredging up past blunders seems at best beside the point and at worst (and Karl Rove would be sure to highlight the worst), treasonous. Few Democrats have amassed the Purple Hearts of a John Murtha to withstand the kind of slander that felled Max Cleland in his Senate reelection bid.
In recent months, the Democrats have taken steps to push for accountability. But few have attracted media attention and all have slammed the Bush administration's tactical blunders — intelligence failures, contract corruption and torture — rather than declaring Iraq an enormous strategic blunder in the war on terror. Few have called the war what most Americans now understand it to have been: a mistake.
In 2006, most Democrats are laying low on Iraq, allowing the war to damage the Republican Party all by itself. With Bush's poll numbers hovering at about 35% and a number of once-untouchable GOP seats in the House vulnerable, the Democrats can be forgiven for believing that their approach is working.
But although this strategy may make a certain amount of political sense, it will serve neither the country nor the Democrats in the long run.
REMAINING IN OFFICE are individuals who have caused gargantuan harm to America's financial standing, to its citizens' welfare and to its overall security (measured even by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's standard: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"). Why are we confident that their ideology and their misjudgments will not lead them to do further damage? Why should we trust them to manage Iran any more successfully than they have Iraq?
And, with the Bush national security team still intact, why would other countries, on whom the U.S. relies to fight terrorism and proliferation, heed future U.S. threat assessments?
There is no panacea for Iraq. But even in the absence of a panacea, Democrats must alter the perception among Americans that the party is incapable of leading the country in wartime. Democrats must speak in unison and demand an essential and long-overdue personnel change. The secretary of Defense — the implementer of the greatest strategic blunder of the last half a century — must go.
The Democrats must resolutely call for Rumsfeld's resignation, and in the interests of enlisting Republican support for his ouster, they should introduce a censure resolution against him. (There is precedent for this; the House of Representatives censured President Lincoln's secretary of war, Simon Cameron, in 1862 on corruption grounds.)
Bush and his administration have managed to combine profound incompetence with profound certainty. The 2008 election is a long way off. If the Democrats stand any chance of improving U.S. foreign policy in the near term, while also positioning themselves to conduct it in the medium term, it will not be by making nice. It will be by adding another truth to the administration's absolutist gospels: If you screw up monumentally, you — like those harmed in your wake — will pay a price.
Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a former assistant secretary of State. Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide."
© 2006 The Los Angeles Times