As the race for president narrows and the country prepares to make a final choice, it is time for one of the two remaining Democratic candidates to start making sense about Iraq.
It remains an article of faith in that party that the American invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein was a tragic blunder, that the ensuing years of struggle and loss have been senseless, and that since the whole mess is certain to end badly, it ought to end sooner rather than later. So rigid is this dogma that the only Democratic debate over Iraq, certainly one of the most important issues facing the nation, has been over who more strongly opposes the invasion - Sen. Barack Obama wins here - and who would more rapidly withdraw U.S. forces.
As someone who supported the invasion because I believed Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, I have since been proved wrong. The invasion was not justified. After some initial success, the adventure without question went badly. President Bush clearly failed to plan adequately for nation-building, and kept the number of U.S. forces there to a catastrophically ineffectual minimum.
For a time it appeared as though Iraq was irrevocably bound for civil war and chaos. Failure and its costly and dangerous consequences for the region and our country seemed the only possible outcome. It was during this period that liberal opinion in this country congealed and dried. It still frames the positions of both leading Democratic candidates.
But time has a way of moving on, and history is full of surprises, both good and bad. The news from Iraq has been good since Bush supported a surge in U.S. troops last year. The military effort to crack down on the insurgency has been remarkably successful, a conclusion I reach not only on the basis of official statements and news reports, but also on my own correspondence with Iraqis and Americans there. A dramatic turnabout has occurred.
In January of this year, the U.S. death toll was 40, down by more than two-thirds from what it was in January 2007, and the civilian death toll is half of what it had been. Sunni and Shiite factions that had been attacking U.S. troops have joined forces with Gen. David Petraeus and have been helping to track down and defeat the vicious fanatics. While Iraqi lawmakers have fallen short of the political benchmarks sought by the Bush administration, they have recently passed a budget, a provincial governance law, and an amnesty law for some former Baath officials that required a degree of cooperation considered unrealistic just months ago. These steps suggest that ethnic and religious divisions there may not be intractable.
It is certainly possible that these gains are illusory and temporary, and that hopes for lasting stability and a working democracy will unravel, but it is also reasonable to suppose that moderate Iraqis have glimpsed the abyss and are backing away from it.
The war is not won, but failure no longer appears inevitable. There are signs that al-Qaeda's method of targeting civilians indiscriminately to provoke internecine conflict is generating broad revulsion. This isn't just happening in Iraq. Last week, a poll from the tribal regions of Pakistan, considered the most al-Qaeda-friendly place in the world, found dwindling public support for radical Islamist political parties. And in national elections there Monday, those parties were soundly defeated. This is not really surprising. Who but the most extreme zealots could long support suicide bombing as a political tactic?
This is good news for anyone who wants the conflict in Iraq to end well. No matter how one felt about the invasion to begin with, a stable, peaceful Iraq is a far better thing for all concerned than the opposite. It is one thing to cut your losses when defeat seems inevitable, but quite another to retreat blindly when there are real prospects for success.
Talking sense about Iraq for Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would mean acknowledging the remarkable and courageous achievements of Petraeus and his troops, and admitting that their efforts have opened an unexpected door to a happier ending. It means acknowledging that it might make sense to bear down in Iraq and support the effort we initiated, however rightly or wrongly. Just as it makes no sense to continue sacrificing lives and treasure in a hopeless cause, it makes none to surrender when hope is abundantly alive.
In politics, too much importance is placed on consistency. Candidates who alter their positions risk ridicule and attack. But only a fool never changes his mind. One of the central complaints about Bush, from both liberals and conservatives, was that he persisted in his Iraq policies long after it was clear they weren't working. To his credit, the president belatedly reversed course. He may have done so in time to save the whole effort.
When either Obama or Clinton becomes the party's nominee, he or she will compete against Republican Sen. John McCain for the votes of not just die-hard antiwar Democrats, but all Americans. McCain is someone who supported the invasion from the beginning and who became loudly critical of Bush for not committing more troops to the effort. Last year, he took a strong and politically courageous stand in favor of the troop surge, and so far events and U.S. soldiers have proved him right.
If that trend continues, and most of us hope it will, McCain's steadfast conviction that America can and should prevail in Iraq will look mighty appealing to the general electorate. Democrats uniformly opposed the surge a year ago, and have so far ignored its success, but their message will sour badly if current trends continue.
Six months ago it was hard to imagine how Republicans could hang on to the White House. Unless the Democratic candidate allows for the possibility of success in Iraq, I can easily imagine it happening now.