The conventional wisdom about presidential election campaigns is that the American voting public does not begin to pay attention until after the Labor Day weekend. For both Democrats and Republicans the candidates have been clearly identified long in advance of the national conventions in which they will be officially nominated by their parties, the Democrats in Boston at the end of July and the Republicans in New York at the end of August. Both conventions will be carefully orchestrated by party leaders and their media consultants to demonstrate through word and symbol, and through the choice and timing of those who address the convention, the common ground that unites the various constituencies in each party, Log Cabin Republicans and evangelical Christians, union leaders and Hollywood celebrities.
Ideally, the two national conventions should also be a time for both parties to define the debate on national issues that presumably takes place in a presidential campaign. This election of 2004, and the national debate it should occasion, poses an extraordinary challenge for both Republicans and Democrats, the incumbent president and vice president, and the two Democratic senators who will be their party’s nominees. At a time when the nation is, for all intents and purposes, still at war, how can we debate the wisdom of the Bush administration’s decision to launch a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in March 2003? We can do so because, while such a debate may stir painful emotions, particularly for those families who have lost sons and daughters (and fathers and mothers) in combat, we do not dishonor the dead if we conclude that the invasion was a costly and tragic blunder.
As the reports of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission and the British report on that government’s intelligence findings all make clear, the grounds on which the Bush administration made the case for invading Iraq were all flawed. The regime of Saddam Hussein posed no “great and gathering danger” to the people of the United States. There was no complicity between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no compelling evidence of weapons of mass destruction or the capacity to develop them in an Iraq already constrained by international sanctions and U.N. observers.
While there is growing, albeit grudging, acceptance that the intelligence on which the Bush administration depended was deeply flawed, the president continues to insist that the world is a safer place as a result of the invasion. As the election season moves forward, the American public will need to measure that claim against the terrible costs of the invasion in lives and casualties, Iraqi as well as American, and in the shattered Iraqi economy, under constant assault from terrorist forces. Less easy to measure is the growing resentment against the United States not only in Arab and Muslim nations but even among our traditional allies, as was evident in the hostile reception President Bush received on his recent visit to Ireland, where American presidents are traditionally lionized. The evidence mounts that the invasion of Iraq was not the necessary next step in the war on terrorism, but rather a costly distraction from that war, driven by ideological priorities established long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 ever took place.
Democrats should be chastened, however, by the recollection that in the rush to war in 2003, they offered no challenge to what seemed to be a popular emotional response to terrorism. Nearly every religious group in the United States, including the U.S. Catholic bishops, spoke against the invasion, but in the U.S. Senate, as Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia said on Feb. 12, 2003, “we stand passively mute.... On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq—a population, I might add, of which over 50 percent is under the age of 15—this chamber is silent.”
The national debate about the wisdom of the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq is too important to be carried on in the shorthand of television attack ads. Accusations and counteraccusations must yield at some point to the search for wisdom in fashioning a response to international terrorism that is consistent with our democratic and constitutional traditions. That response must include a search for a better understanding of the dark and tangled roots of international terrorism and the recognition that American values will be as important in this struggle as American military power. This may be expecting too much of an election campaign, but it is what this moment of our national history demands.