Nobody expected a kinder, gentler Iraq debate. So it was no surprise when President Bush's decision to send 21,500 additional troops to the war-torn country triggered stinging criticisms and impassioned defenses from editorialists, syndicated columnists, and sundry bloggers throughout the country. Hawks and doves mostly dug in behind their respective positions, with an opinion-monger's stand on the war in the first place being an excellent predictor of whether he now supports the surge.
But some subtle changes could be detected in the running war commentary. If the President was grim and restrained in outlining his tactical shift, many pro-war pundits were equally subdued. Gone was the "Mission Accomplished" swagger and in its place was -- well, let's not use the term "realism," but it was something like it.
Tom Bevan, executive editor of RealClearPolitics, had his fingers crossed that the infusion of troops would succeed, but he didn't provide much of a cheering section. "In general, if I sound pessimistic about the President's 'new way forward in Iraq,' it's because I am," he conceded, adding that he believed Bush's plan had a chance for success.
Ralph Peters's New York Post column endorsing the surge was also short on straightforward predictions of success. "Will the plan work? Maybe," he wrote. "It's a last-hope effort based on steps that should've been taken in 2003, from providing basic security for the population to getting young Iraqi males off the streets and into jobs."
"Want a little tough truth with your morning coffee?" John Podhoretz asked on The Corner before Bush's speech. "McCain can do this, and Rudy can do that, and Romney can do the other thing. But if tonight's speech doesn't herald the beginning of a serious turnaround in Iraq that is plain to see by spring of next year, the Risen Christ could be the Republican nominee in 2008 and He wouldn't be able to win against Al Sharpton."
The change in tone from persistent optimism to gallows humor was evident in the weeks before Bush's anticipated new policy. Hawks no longer were making confident predictions of victory; more than a few were conceding that there were in fact serious flaws in the planning and execution of the whole Iraq enterprise.
Charles Krauthammer, for example, complained that the Iraqi government sectarian loyalties and incompetence marred Saddam Hussein's execution. He concluded, "[Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki should be made to know that if he insists on having this sectarian war, he can well have it without us." National Review editor Rich Lowry admitted, "Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right -- that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war."
Yet war supporters on the right aren't alone in doing some soul-searching in the face of changing circumstances in Iraq. Liberals and doves have been engaging in a spirited debate over the likely consequences of withdrawal.
Irking his betters in the left-punditocracy, Joe Klein opined that "those who oppose the war now have a responsibility to (a) oppose it judiciously, without hateful or extreme rhetoric and (b) start thinking very hard -- and in a very detailed way -- about how we begin to recover from this mess." At the New Republic, Jason Zengerle worried about "the cavalier way in which some liberal opponents of the surge talk about withdrawal." He reminded his fellow liberals:
Maybe these people are right that withdrawal is necessary, but I don't think we should underestimate the consequences of it. By consequences, I don't mean anything as concrete as the prospects of a possible Al Qaeda sanctuary in Anbar province or the abandonment of thousands of Iraqis to certain death. I'm talking about something more nebulous: what are the consequences of America losing a war -- which is, after all, what withdrawal will mean? What will it do to our position in the world? What will it do to the national psyche? And what will it do to the people who fought in that war? (Yes, they'll be out of harm's way, but they'll also be left to conclude that all their efforts--and their sacrifices--were in vain.)
Even the Nation's Katha Pollitt, in an otherwise crabby column, exhorted her readers, "Be honest. Withdrawing from Iraq may be the right thing to do, but it won't mean peace, at least not for the Iraqis."
Some of this rethinking is undoubtedly opportunistic -- pundits, no less than politicians, like to be able share credit for American victories and avoid blame for policy disasters. Our intervention in Iraq has gone poorly; our withdrawal could easily be a humanitarian catastrophe. But this new burst of nuance may also capture the ambiguous feelings of many who tell pollsters they are among the anti-surge majority -- people who are skeptical that staying the course or escalating will do much good yet ache at the prospect of American setbacks (full disclosure: this group would include the author).
We have many miles yet to go in our country's Iraq debate. But if those of us who live by the keyboard have learned anything, it should be that we could all use a little humility.
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