The war in Iraq has emerged as a key issue in tomorrow's election, but in what way can its course be influenced by voting results?
On the one hand, President Bush has just renewed allegiance to Donald Rumsfeld, the contractor of disaster, and to Dick Cheney, the architect. This suggests that, even after abandoning the rhetoric of "stay the course," Bush remains committed to the present folly. Two more years of Rumsfeld and Cheney in charge mean two more years of needless American casualties, jihadist recruitment, Middle East turmoil, and vast additions to the toll of Iraqi dead. If the elections maintain Republican majorities in Congress, the administration will feel no external pressure to change its Iraq policy. Absent that, Rumsfeld-Cheney will simply carry on.
On the other hand, Democrats could take the House, and perhaps even the Senate. What difference would that make to the war? Obviously, in one or both houses, the opposition could then convene hearings in which both the present conduct of the war and past failures and deceptions could be investigated. Congressional hearings can be a powerful forum. Until now, it has not served the Bush administration's purposes to have the American public well instructed on the complexities of Iraq, but intensive media focus on testimony by the war's witnesses, critics, and victims would change that.
We have been here before. Of all the acts of opposition to the war in Vietnam, none was more consequential than the hearings presided over by Senator William Fulbright -- a Democrat challenging a Democratic administration. The Fulbright hearings served as the nation's classroom, with a visceral uneasiness about the war evolving into informed opposition. The decisive election year was 1968, and, sure enough, voters cast their ballots for peace.
But if the past has ever offered instruction to the present, here is one lesson that must not be missed: The Vietnam War dragged on for nearly seven more years after that critical election. Why? Because public uneasiness with the course of the war was not enough. The only way out of the disaster was to accept defeat, and that America was loath to do. President Nixon came into office on the promise that he had a "secret plan" to end the war, but no sooner had he moved into the White House than he swore he would not be the first US president to lose a war. "Peace with honor" became the shibboleth. The killing continued, the air war came into its own, and more people died in Vietnam after 1968 than had died before. The American public's retreat from concern about the war was epitomized by Nixon's overwhelming reelection in 1972. How did that happen?
It is one thing to feel uneasy about your nation's war, or even to move to a position of outright opposition. It is another to face the harsh fact that the only way out of the war is to accept defeat. The goal of "peace with honor" assumes that the nation's honor has not already been squandered. During Vietnam, for all the widespread opposition to the war, the American public was never ready to face the full truth of what had been done in its name, and so the martial band played on. And on. The war ended not with a bang, but with a whimper, with the United States whining that somehow it had been the victim. Not incidental to the present disaster is the fact that the men dragging out that shameful last moment of Vietnam, when our nation's abject defeat was made plain for all the world to see, were Ford administration honchos Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.
Rumsfeld and Cheney are prepared to do it to their nation again. The question now is whether America will let them? The general uneasiness with the war in Iraq is mostly tied to how badly it has gone. Tactical and strategic planning have been bungled at every level, and the elusive enemy is yet to be understood in Washington. If the Democrats take power with the elections tomorrow, congressional hearings will have a lot of such questions to consider. But what about the moral question? For all of the anguish felt over the loss of American lives, can we acknowledge that there is something proper in the way that hubristic American power has been thwarted? Can we admit that the loss of honor will not come with how the war ends, because we lost our honor when we began it? This time, can we accept defeat?
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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