Voters Deserve a More Sober Iraq Debate

Washington Matters

Voters Deserve a More Sober Iraq Debate

One of the worst things about American politics is its all-or-nothing, black-or-white approach -- a tendency to demand overly simple answers to complex questions, which only puts real solutions further out of range. You have to be for abortion or against it, for amnesty or against immigrants, for gun control or for hunting, for big government or against all regulation, for tax cuts or for raising taxes. It's a ridiculous way to hold a debate, let alone a presidential election, and we ought to stop it now. Especially where


Nothing is more complex than


If 140,000 American troops are willing to put their lives on the line in Iraq, the least we can do is approach their eventual fate rationally. I'm no expert on the situation, but a few facts seem obvious and a good starting point for a serious debate.


1) The early positions of the candidates -- McCain's support for the war and Obama's opposition -- may tell voters something about their thinking on matters of war and foreign policy, but it doesn't help us come up with a sensible way out of the situation as it exists today. Most Americans want out, but they don't want out if it means a precipitous withdrawal that leaves chaos in its wake. They want something in between, so forget the past and focus on where we go from here.


2) If you're going to give Obama credit for opposing the war from day one, give McCain credit for pushing the surge when even most Republicans were skeptical of the strategy. There is no question that the U.S. is better off today because of it. But that, too, is now history. The more important question is, What now?


3) The surge has worked in the sense that violence is down and Iraq is more secure, but it hasn't produced as much political progress as the U.S. and most Iraqis were hoping for. How do we get that political progress?


4) Similarly, the Iraqis have shown great progress in assuming responsibility for their own security, but most American generals say they are only able to do that with considerable U.S. involvement. So how do we get to the point where less U.S. involvement is possible?


5) What is behind Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's call this week for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal? Is it just for domestic consumption, aimed at strengthening his hand before provincial elections in Iraq?  Or have Iraqis reached the point where they think it is better for the U.S. to start to leave?  Maybe a well-thought-out timetable will help bring the political progress that's been lacking.


6) If we conclude that U.S. troops need to stay in huge numbers, how exactly do we manage that? American commanders in Afghanistan are crying for more troops and they can only come from a drawdown in Iraq. The military is begging for relief so it can rebuild its depleted forces and materiel, to say nothing of the country's need to bring some of the money being spent in Iraq back home. If we need to keep 150,000 troops in Iraq, should we reinstitute a draft?  


These aren't all the questions -- or even necessarily the right questions -- that we should be asking, but we desperately need a debate that goes beyond whether the surge worked and whether Obama is flip-flopping. Republicans who say the surge was a great success aren't explaining what happens now and Democrats who say it's a failure aren't taking into account what's been happening on the ground. Similarly, Republicans who jumped on Obama's recent more temperate remarks on Iraq as a great flip-flop aren't bringing the country any closer to an answer, and Democrats who jumped on him for losing his resolve are doing him a great disservice by denying him the breathing room he will need if he becomes president.