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Questions of war and politics

By James Ruhland
web posted May 3, 2004

In a democracy, every citizen has the right to question the government's policies. Those who raise questions are not immune to criticism themselves. The fact that this needs to be pointed out is a sign of how effective critics of our policies on the war have been in delegitimizing any disagreement with their critiques. Those who argue back and criticize the critics are faced with the charge of not permitting questions to be raised about the conduct of our policy.

This is a rhetorical device aimed at short-circuiting a substantive analysis of the questions they raise, the critiques they make, and the alternatives they offer. But just as it is legitimate for opponents of a policy or party to raise pointed questions, so too is it perfectly legitimate for us to come to conclusions based on the type of questions raised and alternatives proposed. When the questions the most vocal critics of the war are looked at dispassionately, it readily becomes apparent that they are more interested in winning partisan battles at home than improving the conduct of the war abroad.

It's not that the conduct of the war is above reproach. Very pointed questions can be raised about the handling of the war. What, if anything, has been done to improve intelligence gathering to prevent the failure throughout the Western – not just American – intelligence community to determine not only the extent of Saddam's weapons programs but those of North Korea and Libya? Do we have a large enough military to achieve our purposes? Questions of this sort show a seriousness of purpose in winning the war and also knowledge of what the realistic alternatives are.

But these are not the sort of questions raised by the most prominent critics of the conduct of the war. Typically, the critiques raised show less effort at improving our prospects in the war, but are instead a war against the war. They are aimed at destroying domestic opponents, not defeating our country's foes. Accusations posed as questions about the extent to which the President "manipulated" intelligence detract from looking at what needs to be improved in its gathering. Criticism of a "go it alone policy" of unilateralism dismisses the contributions of our actual allies and ignores the limits of diplomacy. It is based on the premise that other countries simply respond to the stimuli we give them. Questions about why Bush slighted diplomacy and "getting the allies on board" not only denies the efforts we made but distracts from those countries' decisions based on their own interests. Some countries were not going to change their minds regardless of the overtures made to them, just as Ted Kennedy isn't going to change his position on tax cuts no matter how often Bush invites him to the White House for a pleasant evening of movie watching.

Asking why there aren't more foreign troops and contributions in Iraq ignores the limitations of other country's resources. One can compare with Afghanistan, where the "international" model was followed and there are barely 5,000 troops in the UN-led security force there, huddled around Afghanistan. The main burden of providing security and hunting down the enemy remains the responsibility of America and its closest allies – the same who are with us in Iraq. The criticism that we should give the UN more of a role in Iraq dismisses the possibility that the Iraqis may not welcome an institution they have come to suspect was complicit in their oppression and would be manipulated by UN members who do not have the interests of Iraqis at heart.

Indeed. Knowledgeable people can be forgiven for concluding that those raising such questions and criticisms are either not informed enough to be paid attention to on these matters, or are putting their political interests ahead of the country's. We are also allowed to ask questions of our own, such as which of these possibilities would be worse.

That all this is done for purposes of political gain is all the more odious. When one listens to the tenor of their comments, it is clear that many in this country reserve a passionate intensity for their domestic foes that they do not express towards the people who seek to kill Americans. It is hardly out of line to take note of that fact in a democracy. The simple fact is that it is not criticism itself that makes many prominent Democrats unfit for office, but the nature of those criticisms. Until they are at least as serious in devising a strategy for winning the war as they are in devising means to bring down their opponents at home, they should not win the White House.

James Ruhland is the author of Porphyrogenitus.net.

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