Finding Wisdom in the Wreckage

In retail the customer is always right; in politics the voters are never wrong. Republicans need to bear that in mind as they contemplate the wreckage left behind by Tuesday night's Democrat tide. Defeat can be a great teacher and now is the Republican's time to learn.

Waste no time grumbling about the irresponsibility of the voters who handed power to a party so fundamentally unserious that it has nothing useful to say about any of the principal issues with which our government must grapple. Democrats didn't deserve to win, but Republicans deserved to lose. The voters plainly got that right.

For once the conventional wisdom forecast the election well. Conventional wisdom is also right about the primary basis for the voter discontent that left the GOP battered. Republicans have a lot to answer for but the war in Iraq is their only electorally significant political problem.

Voters didn't like events in Iraq two years ago and they put President Bush on probation. They gave him a dangerously narrow reelection victory against an inept candidate with a long history of anti—American activism, a figure who should have been buried under a landslide that would make 1972 look like a squeaker. Two years later nothing had changed except that the voters were out of patience.

In the anticipation, I believed that voters, however disgruntled, would vote more or less as they did in 2004. We all knew they were exasperated about Iraq but the Democrats couldn't propose anything other than defeat, either phased or immediate. The choice between an unsatisfactory status quo and an uncertain but plainly worse alternative seemed to me like a no—brainer.

The voters saw it differently and their judgment deserves respect. Republicans need to look back, consider where they went wrong and chart a new course for the future.

The Iraq PR Disaster

Why did Iraq become a public relations disaster? Answering this question has become an inside the beltway cottage industry. It was a disaster instead of a decisive victory, we are told, because the Bush administration committed this, that or the other blunder. It didn't send enough troops, it disbanded the Iraqi army, it didn't adopt just the right counter—insurgency tactics, and so on.

Critics of every stripe harp particularly on our troop commitment. There is now a bipartisan consensus that we are failing in Iraq because we never had enough Soldiers and Marines on the ground to succeed. In Washington there is no more reliable indicator of error than a bipartisan consensus.

The problem in Iraq is much larger than mere short—staffing and it isn't a question of tactics. The problem in Iraq goes back to 1999 when Republicans, desperate for a presidential win, overlooked the intellectual incoherence of "compassionate conservatism" and embraced Governor Bush of Texas as their nominee.

George W. Bush is a genuinely decent man. The compassionate part of his approach to politics isn't sales patter. It is a profound part of the man he is. Cold calculation doesn't come naturally to him.

In domestic politics this means, for example, that he can't even seem seriously to consider whether a Medicare prescription drug benefit will make our health care financing system better or worse. When someone is hurting the government must move because, well, because it must.

The same blinding compassion is disabling for Bush the war leader.

In the aftermath of 9/11 any minimally responsible American government would have had to topple Saddam Hussein. We were at war with Hussein (yes, a real shooting war) and we were losing. When the twin towers fell we all knew, at some level, that the Arab world had challenged us. We couldn't respond to that challenge by losing a war to our most vocal and visible Arab enemy. We had to assert our dominance, and Iraq, a major, oil—producing enemy just above the Arabian Peninsula, was the logical place to do it.

George W. Bush was not the man for this job. Instead of pivoting out of Afghanistan and descending on Iraq like a biblical plague, he took a long detour through the United Nations to argue about flouted resolutions and weapons of mass destruction.

The Blunder

When we finally got around to an invasion we had to put a humanitarian gloss on an essential demonstration of our power. Instead of Operation Arab Smackdown we got Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was the true blunder that turned Iraq from a political asset into a liability. This blunder belongs to George W. Bush and George W. Bush alone, even though Don Rumsfeld has now paid for it with his job.

Most Americans intuitively understand that our survival depends on maintaining our dominant position in the world and that to do so we have to answer all challengers and leave no serious enemy standing. To be the World's hyperpower is to wear a target. With technology threatening to make the power of extermination widely available at popular prices, we have to make certain that nobody feels lucky enough to hazard a shot at that target. Americans will fight and die and pay through the nose to intimidate our enemies.

But most of us wouldn't cross the street to make a better life for Iraqis, or for any other largely Arab population. This indifference isn't evidence of atavistic racism. We are indifferent to the welfare of Iraqis partly because, after 9/11, we can't help noticing that Arabia is not, by and large, well—disposed toward us. Mostly, however, we aren't motivated to help Iraqis because we have our own children, our own lives and our own culture to worry about. The brotherhood of man notwithstanding, the welfare of foreigners is never going to make the list of our top hundred concerns.

Pious Hope and Shallow Support

The President's claim that benefiting Iraqis is really in our interest because a free and democratic Iraq would be a peaceful and friendly Iraq was never more than a pious hope. At least since the Peloponnesian War when Athens attacked Syracuse, it has been clear that democracies are quite capable of attacking one another.

We need a reliable client state in Iraq and fostering democracy in an alien and hostile culture is very unlikely to give us one. There was never any reason to suppose that democracy was our friend in Iraq any more than it proved to be our friend in, for example, Pakistan.

When President Bush cast the war in Iraq as a war for the benefit of Iraqis with vital collateral benefits for the U.S., sensible people recognized his argument for the nonsense it was and tuned him out. By choosing to cast it that way, President Bush guaranteed that the war would have shallow support at best. He also guaranteed that it would drag on long after that shallow support dried up entirely.

Needed: Leverage

When we tried to be liberating benefactors we gave up all the leverage we might otherwise have had over Iraq's ethnic and religious factions. We couldn't extort Shiite cooperation by threatening to replace Saddam with another Sunni dictator. We couldn't threaten the Sunni tribal leaders with an Iraqi partition that would leave them cut off from any participation in the oil revenues of the Kurdish north and the Shiite south. We had guaranteed everyone a fair shake in the new Iraq. This had the effect of greatly reducing the downside risk of sectarian warfare and freeing everyone to fight for something more than their fair share.

Playing the good guys also cost us the advantage of our overwhelming power. We deliberately refrained from destroying the Iraqi army during our invasion even though we certainly had the tools to do so. Many thousands of men escaped to fight another day and another way. It wasn't a lack of manpower that kept us from crushing Moqtada al Sadr's militia and caused us to back away from Fallujah and other Sunni hot spots. From the beginning we were much less lethal than we should have been because we have been trying to fight without causing too many bad feelings that might get in the way of the effort to engineer a political settlement.

No matter how elusive such a settlement seems we keep groping for it because we can't hand the terrorists a victory and the President has committed us to the goal of a free and democratic Iraq. But instead of looking resolute we increasingly look nae, foolish and weak.

For two years Republicans have been free to speak their minds about Iraq without fear of hurting the President's reelection campaign. Not one prominent Republican has made the case that American interests are ill—served by midwifing a democracy in Iraq. Not one prominent Republican has even tried to explore more practical routes to the only goal that matters — replacing Saddam's Iraq with a reliable client state (or states).

Maybe we need to find an Iraqi version of Pervez Musharraf. Maybe we need martial law and an American military governor. Maybe we need a partition that rewards the Kurds and disappoints both the Sunnis and the Shiites. Maybe we need some combination of the above. In any case, we need to stop talking about how the war can serve Iraqi purposes and start talking about how it can serve ours. Republicans had their chance to do that and they squandered it.

No wonder the voters are disgusted with Republicans and prepared to tolerate Democrats. George W. Bush has managed the almost impossible feat of making anti—war politics respectable in wartime.

Here are the lessons Republicans should learn from the pasting they took in 2006: Be practical. Common sense wins elections, half—baked theories lose them. When your leader is in thrall to a half—baked theory, cut him loose.

Never play follow the leader over a cliff again.

J. Peter Mulhern is a frequent contributor to Anerican Thinker.