The Washington Times

As we mull the implications of the November elections for what comes next in Iraq, it’s worth keeping in mind that this was, in fact, the third time voters have had an opportunity to weigh in on the subject. I think that there are some reasonable conclusions to be drawn from the electoral judgments voters have rendered. But if people fail to look at all three and concentrate exclusively on the most recent, they are going miss some important aspects of our current predicament.  The first thing to note is that the surprising midterm Republican pickup of seats in 2002 took place against the backdrop of a rather one-sided debate about going to war in Iraq. True, some House and Senate Democrats voted against the congressional authorization of the war. For this, they have earned the lasting gratitude of their party’s left wing. But many Democrats joined most Republicans in support of the use of force against Saddam Hussein if he failed to comply with U.N. resolutions.    

Some Democrats have tried to portray President Bush’s insistence on a vote before the midterm as an exercise in political exploitation: Because of potential electoral vulnerability, Democrats were less willing to oppose Mr. Bush. Interesting argument, but does anybody really think the outcome of the vote would have been much different the third week of November from the second week of October? For example, even if the calculation of potential future Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate was in some measure political, it had nothing to do with the midterm election: They were hunting bigger game.

And to say that some Democrats offered support only under duress because of the potential wrath of voters is to miss two relevant facts: Not all Democrats who opposed the war did so at no political risk, and they deserve credit for taking an unpopular stand that some of their colleagues were apparently too fearful to emulate. Second, and this is the key point, the conclusion that opposing the authorization to use force could get you into political trouble was based on the factual premise that most Americans thought using force against Saddam was a good idea. If they hadn’t, they would probably have found some way to make that point around the midterm elections. Democrats would have picked up any serious currents of opposition in opinion polling, and they likely would have seized on it, if only to make a record for the future.   

So that’s the first conclusion not to be missed: Toppling the Saddam regime seemed like a good idea to most people at the time. All those weapons of mass destruction were very worrying indeed.

Which takes us to the second election, 2004, by which time it was clear that there were no WMD stocks in anything like the quantity suggested in descriptions of the prewar intelligence. There were two possible explanations for the erroneousness of the alarming prewar assessments, neither of which was favorable to the Bush administration. The first was that the intelligence was simply and massively wrong. Second and worse was the possibility that the administration deliberately distorted the intelligence or pressured those charged with making assessment to reach the conclusion senior officials demanded.     

It’s not as if, by 2004, people were unacquainted with both possibilities. To me, the interesting question posed by the election was whether Americans would grant a second term to a president who had led the nation to war having misstated the key reason for going. They would, as it happened, perhaps because they would not validate the left’s claim that the administration was lying.     

That’s the background for the 2006 vote bringing Democrats to power in Congress in an election in which Democratic candidates and the national party focused on Iraq. Yes, it is quite right to conclude that Americans are now very frustrated by Iraq. But they had an opportunity to give an indication of reluctance to go to war in 2002, and they did not. And they had an opportunity to repudiate going to war in 2004, and they did not. Their frustration is accordingly with the lack of progress between 2004 and now.    

In sum, if people think the whole thing was a mistake, which I have no doubt many people do, they acknowledge that the mistake was not just the responsibility of others but their own as well, for supporting what has not turned out well. They have had plenty of opportunities to blame someone: “Bush lied. People died.” And they have not chosen to do so. Nor has their been any shortage of volunteers to accept the accolades and garlands they see as their due for having been right all along. Yet they are stuck with the honors they bestow upon themselves.     

If, in the view of many people, going to war in Iraq wasn’t worth it because the war is going badly, it does not follow that they have concluded that the people who opposed it were right all along and that the opponents are therefore the best future custodians of all such questions. The judgments people are making are a little more refined than that.