Don’t Fight Old Battles


Another autumn of decision awaits the White House and the United States Congress this fall. It was five years ago at this time that war debate was reaching a fever pitch and led to a Democratic Senate authorizing President Bush to use military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Today we are coming full circle. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, will present Congress a report on progress being made. And decisions have to be made as to whether the United States will maintain a presence there, and if so, how strong.

As this debate proceeds, the biggest problem I see is that too much of it seems to be just re-hashing the old arguments that were made five years ago. It takes place on both sides. It’s as though war supporters feel they need to support the strongest possible stance, in terms of committing more troops. It’s as though war opponents feel the need to raise their voices the loudest for a complete withdrawal by a fixed date, certain and soon.

Neither approach is healthy or conducive to sound policy. The world is different today then it was five years ago. In October 2002, the Anaheim Angels won the World Series. How would their fans react if management informed them they were going to make current personnel decisions based on the landscape of five years ago? The fans would quite rightly link the front office had blown a fuse. Making foreign policy decisions from an outdated mindset is no less foolish, though its consequences are much more drastic.

Let’s look at this from the mindset of either side of the debate. In a recent Republican presidential debate, Ron Paul, the hero of the antiwar Right, boldly declared “We marched right in. We can march right out.” Well, not if we have any concern over the society being left behind, we can’t. When the United States made the decision to overthrow Saddam it rid the world of a brutal dictator, but also left a power vacuum in his country. A voter living in 2002 will ignore the moral consequences of a withdrawal. A voter living in 2007 might still advocate withdrawal, but would at least give the current moral and geopolitical landscape some consideration.

And what of the war supporters? Let’s walk in those shoes for a moment. Over his term in office, President Bush has overthrown both the Taliban and Saddam, giving fresh hope to two nations. There have been successful democratic elections in Iraq, each one defying the odds in producing large voter turnout. It’s not illegitimate for one to have supported the invasion and to declare it a success. A voter living in 2002 might feel the need to perpetually support every troop surge. A voter living in 2007 might still advocate the surge, but would at least recognize that saying “Mission Accomplished” is a viable option.

In neither case, am I attempting to say that updating one’s worldview presupposes any particular policy decision, nor do I think it presupposes any one of the middle-of-the-road options. I simply note what seems to be a pattern of political discourse, wherein a discussion of the current situation seems to quickly degenerate into a rehash of 2002. That period five years ago was a necessarily divisive time, as a clear yes/no choice had to be decided upon. The options today are broader and should lead into a period of consensus.

For the sake of full disclosure, my own view in 2002 was that I would not have voted for the war authorization, primarily due to concerns over the power vacuum that would happen in Iraq and doubtful that Saddam posed a greater long-term threat to U.S. security then Iran. Given this, I was concerned over stretching U.S. resources too thin for an operation whose benefits seemed primarily humanitarian—freeing Iraq from this thug. Not that those humanitarian goals aren’t worthwhile, but I don’t see it as the province of the American military.

However, I have also supported President Bush’s troop surge. Whether Saddam was the primary threat to national security or not, he was still a vile bully and he is hardly missed on the world stage. As long as he is removed, it seems to me in our best interest to win the fight by maintaining enough security for a stable Iraqi democracy.

But whatever perspective you come from and wherever you stand today, what’s most important is moving beyond the battles of five years ago and not letting every debate over 2007 be poisoned—implicitly or explicitly—by the debate of 2002. In the end, we’re all in the same boat, and winning a war is more important then winning an argument.


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