To judge by the presidential campaign, civil discourse in the United States lies exhausted and beaten alongside the campaign trail, a victim of the culture wars. Problems produced by the Iraq war are mounting, and the war remains the nation’s number one issue; but neither the candidates nor the country are debating how to bring the war to an end and leave the Iraqis to govern themselves. Instead, we are like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, sparring over the shadow play on the wall.
The culprits in the demise of democratic deliberation are many: politicians who look only to the next election; consultants set on political combat; the media, which thrive on scandal, confuse balance with objectivity and pollute the airwaves with the blather of talking heads; overheated technology that floods us with infotainment, and a public that relishes politics, like professional wrestling, as a sport. All are guilty of indifference to the suffering the war has inflicted on the Iraqi people, selfish avoidance of the costs of the war and sophomoric inattention to world affairs.
Last month we passed a landmark in the Iraq war. On Sept. 8 the number of American deaths passed 1,000. Little noticed here, an estimated 15,000 Iraqi civilians have also been killed. American wounded grew to more than 7,000. How many Iraqis have been wounded and maimed we do not know. During the same week, American military authorities admitted insurgents controlled upward of 20 cities, and coalition forces had lost effective control of the Sunni Triangle, which includes portions of Baghdad.
At such times, serious discussion of how the United States will find a way forward in Iraq is urgently needed, but neither President George W. Bush nor Senator John F. Kerry are offering ideas for winning the peace. The president will not admit that the war is a failure, that it detracted from the campaign against Al Qaeda and strengthened the terrorists’ recruitment, that Osama bin Laden remains at large and that Afghanistan is fast slipping back into independent fiefs run by warlords involved in the drug trade. Instead of new plans, Mr. Bush offers displays of bravado and bromides about the country being safer under his leadership. Mr. Kerry cites his combat experience as evidence of his own ability to lead, but except for saying he would work more closely with other nations and wage war with greater subtlety, he is unable to distinguish his position from that of Mr. Bush.
The public needs the candidates to lay out their plans and define their differences. The times require an honest, thoughtful debate on how to conclude the fight against the insurgents and establish peace in Iraq. The basic questions are few. How do you defeat an insurgency? How do you provide security for next year’s elections in Iraq, for economic reconstruction and a restored national infrastructure? How do you encourage a new Iraqi political culture that honors human rights while preserving national unity? When and how do you withdraw?
Further, how many troops will it take to do the job? The administration grossly underestimated the number of troops needed to secure the peace. It sustains troop levels by forced extension of tours of duty. Mr. Kerry has suggested adding 40,000 troops to relieve mission-strain, but not to beef up the forces currently in Iraq. Beyond numbers, what kind of forces are needed now to secure the peace? The Pentagon has announced a long-term reform of its force structure to include peacekeeping, counter-guerrilla warfare and civil affairs units. But winning the peace in Iraq requires more such troops today, not tomorrow.
Finally, how will we pay for the war? Joshua Goldstein, in his new book, The Real Price of War (New York Univ. Press), estimates the war costs every American household $500 per month. But the cost is being passed on to future generations by way of the deficit. The current conflict is the only U.S. war, moreover, where taxes have both been cut and grown regressive. Meanwhile the deficit takes an indirect toll in a weak dollar, expensive oil and reduced public services. Inevitably it will also result in surging inflation. Do not these issues deserve public debate?
Athens never had a real philosopher king, and it is highly unlikely that an ideal politician will suddenly appear in today’s United States. So we should not expect that the next weeks will present us with a serious debate over how to secure peace for Iraq and ourselves.
The stakes, however, are enormous: for peace in Iraq, for U.S. security and for the future of deliberative democracy. Perhaps only the emergence of a politically educated citizenry that prefers substantive discussion over sound bites will save us from the national folly of which this feckless campaign is symptomatic. If not, the day is not far off when Americans will come to rue, not the absence of philosopher kings, but the lack of any political maturity, a surer threat to our democratic freedom than Osama bin Laden himself.