Politics & Policy

Reiding Rauch

The charges and stakes in Iraq.

In his latest article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch writes this about a lecture hosted by the think tank where I work:

A few months ago, in a packed, stuffy room atop a hotel in downtown Washington, a prominent speaker made a startling remark. Even more startling, no one in the audience seemed startled. The audience was a predominantly conservative crowd assembled by the Ethics and PublicPolicy Center, a right-of-center think tank. The speaker was Bernard Lewis, a doyen of Western Islamic studies and a man widely admired on the right for his prescient warnings about radical Islam… Having spoken on “The Challenge of Islam,” he was asked how things were going in Iraq. He replied that conditions had improved there and would continue to improve. “Unless,” he added, “we are betrayed from within.” No one showed surprise or discomfort. The session flowed on. But wait. Unless we are betrayed from within? Unpack that phrase, and then unpack the bland reaction to it, and you have a glimpse of one of the ugliest potential outcomes of an already plenty ugly war: a long-term, low-level, persistent civil conflict—not in Iraq, but in America.

Rauch goes on to castigate Republicans and conservatives:

So begins the narrative of betrayal: the “stab in the back” narrative, as its historical precedents (most famously in interwar Germany) have been called. “We never really lost,” goes this narrative. “We defeated ourselves.” Or, in the really toxic version: “Some of us defeated the rest.” This kind of narrative, if it develops a popular following, can poison politics for a generation. We can assume that if the Iraq War ends badly, some Republican hard-liners, amplified by conservative talk radio, will accuse the Democrats of perfidy. The question is: Will the betrayal narrative find traction with the broader American public? In particular, will mainstream Republicans buy into it? Or will cooler heads prevail, so the country can heal and move on?

I don’t recall Jonathan being terribly troubled, or even troubled at all, when (to take just one example) former Vice President Al Gore accused the current president of the United States of having “deeply dishonoring America,” of being a “moral coward,” of having built a “durable reputation as the most dishonest President since Richard Nixon,” and of having “betrayed this country.” Unpack these phrases, and then unpack the bland, even nonexistent, Rauch reaction to them, and you have a glimpse of what might be termed a huge double standard.

Gore’s charges are certainly more incendiary, ugly, and prominent than what Professor Lewis said in response to a question at a hotel gathering of think-tankers. And of course Gore’s comments, wrong and deeply unfair, were directed against our commander-in-chief during a time of war. These words, too, can poison the political environment for a long time to come. Yet to my knowledge Rauch has not written a word, let alone an article, condemning Democrats like Al Gore for their routine, reckless, and divisive charges against President Bush. It’s worth asking why.

As for the “narrative of betrayal” charge: A very strong case can be made that undermining the surge, particularly in light of its successes (both militarily and, more recently, politically), would subvert any chance we have of achieving a decent outcome in Iraq — and awful consequences would follow. Beyond that, an objective observer cannot have followed the words of, say, Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid on Iraq and come away with any impression other than that he is invested in a defeat in Iraq. Why else would he have declared the surge a failure before it was even fully implemented — and why would he and so many leading Democrats dismiss, and even appear to get agitated when told of the progress we are seeing since General Petraeus began one of the most successful counterinsurgency plans in history? That may not qualify as a betrayal — but it qualifies as a very disturbing thing.

There is a pattern to some of Rauch’s writings these days. He seems determined to protect antiwar critics from the consequences of their actions and prevent an important debate from taking place by declaring certain arguments beyond the pale. If the Iraq war does in fact end badly, there will be plenty of blame to go around — beginning with the administration for which I worked. The postwar (Phase IV) planning was awful — and the adjustments came far too late. But to his credit, in January 2006 President Bush endorsed the surge when almost everyone was against it — and it was the right and politically courageous thing to do. And if Democrats, because they either hate the war or hate the president, succeed in undermining our efforts in Iraq once we have found a demonstrably successful strategy, it would be an act of dishonor. And it would do more, much more, than “poison politics”; it would lead to ethnic cleansing and perhaps even genocide in Iraq, as well as a historically important victory for jihadists and radical Islamic regimes throughout the world. A loss in Iraq would be a major loss for America in its epic struggle against militant Islam — and rivers of blood would eventually follow.

Perhaps in reflecting on this outcome Jon Rauch — an intelligent and honest writer — will begin to aim some of his fire in a different direction.

– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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