Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, once a supporter of the war in Iraq, has been rethinking his position. The day after Senator John Kerry's speech at NYU attacking the President's war policies, Cohen wrote, "I still don't think the United States can just pull out of Iraq. But I do think the option is worth discussing."
Well, let's discuss it.
The United States should just pull out of Iraq.
There are many issues in politics that are very complicated. The war in Iraq is not one of them. Common sense in regard to this war rests on two rock-solid pillars:
(1) The United States should never have invaded Iraq.
(2) Now it should set a timetable to withdraw and leave.
These two propositions go together. The litany of reasons why it was wrong to invade Iraq -- that there were no weapons of mass destruction in the country, no ties to Al Qaeda and only the dimmest prospect of democracy -- are the same as the reasons why it is now wrong to remain there.
And in truth, the war would have been an even greater mistake if the reasons given for it had been based on reality-if the weapons of mass destruction and ties to Al Qaeda had existed. People don't have to ask themselves today what might have happened if Vice President Cheney had been correct in saying, as he did before the war, that Iraq had "reconstituted its nuclear weapons" and if CIA director George Tenet had also been correct in saying that the sole circumstance in which Saddam might use weapons of mass destruction would be if his power were threatened. Had both men been correct, there might have been a use of weapons of mass destruction against American troops in the Iraq theater, or even on US soil (if the ties to Al Qaeda had also been real), and a possible use of nuclear weapons by the United States in retaliation.
How fortunate we are that Cheney, at least, was factually mistaken! That he was wrong is the bright side, if you like, of the current mess. His disastrous factual errors may have saved us from his catastrophic policy errors. Nor has the war brought with it any new justification for itself. On the contrary, it has added fresh reasons for leaving. If the story of the occupation so far -- a story of scarcely imaginable incompetence, misfired intentions, collapsing plans, multiplying horrors and steadily growing resistance -- teaches a single clear lesson it is that the United States is a radicalizing force in Iraq. The more the United States pursues the goal of a democratic Iraq, the farther it recedes into the distance. The longer the United States stays the course, the worse the actual outcome becomes.
Let there be as orderly a transition as possible, accompanied by as much aid, foreign assistance and general sweetness and light as can be mustered, but the endpoint, complete withdrawal, should be announced in advance, so that everyone in Iraq -- from the beheaders and other murderers, to legitimate resisters, to any true democrats who may be on the scene -- can know that the responsibility for their country's future is shifting to their shoulders. The outcome, though not in all honesty likely to be pretty, will at any rate be the best one possible. If the people of Iraq slip back into dictatorship, it will be their dictatorship. If they choose civil war, it will be their civil war. And if by some happy miracle they choose democracy, it will be their democracy -- the only kind worth having.
Kerry's speech was the beginning "at long last" (his words) of a serious debate in the campaign over the war. The speech was heralded by his charge, a few days before, that George W. Bush lives in a "fantasy world of spin" -- the first telling, or even widely audible, phrase that Kerry has used in his entire campaign for President. Bush, indeed, has an audacious personal quality that has somehow served him well so far: full frontal repudiation of facts known to all. Faced with the absence of WMDs in Iraq he once simply said, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction." Faced with a Presidential Daily Brief titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.," he and his spokespersons called it "historical." In his universe, faithfulness to delusion is "consistency." It reached its apogee at the GOP convention, where the President presented a picture of the war in Iraq from which all current facts-the street fighting, the bombing, the kidnappings, the torture, the departing allies-had been removed.
"Staying the course" meant staying in the imaginary world. At the convention, the President, if we are to judge by his sudden dramatic rise in the polls, apparently drew a majority of the country into that world with him. Yet almost immediately thereafter, he sank again in many polls. As of this writing, the polls are in anarchy, showing anything from a double-digit Bush lead to a dead heat. The polling may reflect the confusion of a public groping to deal with its immersion in the imaginary world. Like a movie audience emerging from a feel-good blockbuster onto the icy streets, the public probably cannot help noticing that what is before its eyes is quite different from what was on the screen. The bright and shining lies are always more appealing, at least for a while, than the plain truth. Could the resulting double-vision be the reason for a certain flip-flopping, so to speak, of the public itself?
In his speech, Kerry embraced one of the pillars of common sense, finally declaring that the war was a mistake, saying of the President, "Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no." He did not proceed, however, to the necessary corollary, that withdrawal is necessary, though he hinted at it. Each of his concrete proposals -- to find allies, train Iraqi police, speed up reconstruction, hold elections -- is fine, but none guarantee the success in creating a "viable" Iraq that he still seems to promise. He has put one foot in the real world, but left the other in the imaginary world, leaving himself open, still, to the flip-flopping charge that Bush immediately leveled against him again. Only one-hundred-percent fantasy will do for the President. But Kerry has at least begun the journey -- one as hard as the journey from his service in Vietnam to his protest against it -- toward the real. Give him credit for that.