A Last Chance for Consensus on Iraq

Monterey County Herald, Sunday, December 17, 2006
By Leon E. Panetta
This country cannot be at war and divided at the same time. History has made clear that no president can conduct a war without the support of the American people. That was the message that I and others gave the president in the Oval Office when we presented him with the report of the Iraq Study Group.

What the five Democrats and five Republicans of the Iraq Study Group did was set aside the divisions, the blame for what went wrong in Iraq, and the political sound bites, and focus instead on the realities. Those realities are brutal and sobering: Violence is out of control; sectarian factions are not only at war but they also control the political leadership; the Iraqi police are largely ineffective and corrupt; the basic needs of people — water, sanitation, electricity, jobs — are not being delivered; the neighboring nations are either standing on the sidelines or helping foment instability; and the U.S. military mission is torn between trying to clear and hold areas in Baghdad and fighting sectarian militias.

Seeing those realities up close in Baghdad brought the Iraq Study Group together behind a unanimous set of recommendations. The three primary proposals involve a significant change in present policy: Shift the primary military mission of U.S. forces from combat to training and support by embedding our best combat units in Iraqi army units, gradually withdrawing all combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008; establish a clear set of milestones for the Iraqi government on security, national reconciliation and governance and condition U.S. support on those milestones being met; and engage in a new diplomatic offensive to bring together the nations in the region, including Syria and Iran, with Iraq and our key allies to help secure the borders and promote stability.

Our report offers more than an opportunity to consider these proposals — it offers the opportunity to build a new and needed consensus in the nation.

The war in Iraq has badly divided the country. As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, these divisions have grown more stark, and opposition to the war has broadened among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. In Congress, the divide on Iraq has prevented the kind of bipartisan collaboration that is essential to dealing with one of the most critical challenges facing our nation.

In addition to dividing Republicans and Democrats, the war is also dividing the president from the people he governs. As the news in Iraq has gone from bad to worse, many Americans have advocated a change of course, including some who were once the war’s strongest supporters. Recent polls show 70 percent of the public no longer supports the war.

Yet the White House has resisted any change, leaving many Americans concerned that the situation will not improve. The results of the November election made clear the growing frustration of the American people over the direction of the war.

These divisions have resulted in a national debate on Iraq that too often reduces itself to 30-second sound bites. Those who want to draw down our forces in Iraq seek to “cut and run.” Those who want to stand by present policy are for “staying the course.” Members of the Iraq Study Group have been called “surrender monkeys.” The goal of a highly complex American mission is summarized in the word “victory,” which seems to have little relationship to the violence and instability in Iraq.

Why do these divisions affect the conduct of the war? Because the American people simply will not continue to support sacrificing the lives of their sons and daughters in a war that has no clear mission. No president has unlimited power to send our troops in harm’s way. The Constitution vests power in the commander in chief, but it also limits that power through a strong system of checks and balances.

Vietnam became so unpopular that Congress cut off funds for the war. The conflict in Central America in the 1980s was so controversial that Congress imposed deadlines on policy. The prolonged stalemate in the Korean War forced President Eisenhower to go to Korea and eventually resolve the war through negotiation. In our democracy, every decision by the president, in peace and war, is tested in the caldron of public opinion and ultimately that test determines whether his decision will be sustained.

President Bush may well decide that he is going to fight the Iraq war his way, regardless of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group or the views of the American people. But if he fails to unify the nation behind his strategy, the backlash will come back to haunt his policies and his legacy.

During the course of his administration, the president has had the unique opportunity to bring this country together a number of times, but each time he has failed to do that.

After the controversy of the 2000 election, he had the chance to heal the bitter divisions and embrace the tone of bipartisanship he had displayed as governor in Texas. After Sept. 11, 2001, he had the opportunity to unify both parties and the nation on the war on terrorism, but his decision to go to war in Iraq soon split the country. Following his re-election in 2004, he again had the chance to bring together Democrats and Republicans on domestic policy, but he chose to promote a controversial proposal to privatize Social Security.

Today, Washington is more divided than ever. Yet the president now has a last opportunity to unify the nation by recommending a course of action in Iraq that will end our open-ended commitment and pressure the Iraqis to govern themselves.

Now is the time for the president, Congress and the American people to step back and consider the reality of what we are facing in Iraq. The Iraq Study Group’s report should mark the beginning, not the end, of a national debate. But the result of that debate must be consensus.

Iraq is not the only issue on which this country needs to come together. Time and again, we are finding it harder to work in a bipartisan way to solve the country’s problems. Our Founding Fathers did not think the president and members of Congress would agree on everything, but they did believe that they would have the good will and common sense to find consensus. That was the miracle of Philadelphia, embodied in the Constitution, and that is what enables this country to move forward successfully.

Frankly, it should not become the norm that tough problems are contracted out to commissions or bodies like the Iraq Study Group, particularly if their recommendations are ignored. Solving problems should be the task of our elected leaders — the president and Congress.

The immediate challenge is Iraq. Our country has made a staggering commitment in this war in terms of our blood and our treasure. We owe it to those who have sacrificed their lives to take one last chance at making Iraq work. We owe it to them to unify the nation.
LEON PANETTA, is a member of the Iraq Study Group. A former congressman and White House chief of staff, he is co-director of the Panetta Institute in Monterey. He wrote this article for Perspective. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.


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