Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Democracy and War

The Iraqi conflict is now the third-longest foreign war in our nation’s history, after only Vietnam and the Philippine-American War. President Bush has urged us to maintain our resolve. I’m not going to advance an argument about our options in Iraq (at least not today,) but I do want to make a narrower point: if we choose an option that, in order to attain success, requires a commitment of more time than is left in Mr. Bush’s term, then we need to be reasonably assured that the public support will be there to maintain that commitment.

From the evidence of polls and the recent mid-term elections, that support is not there and is unlikely to grow. If troops levels stay where they are and the Republican candidate in 2008 is forced to defend an unpopular war, then even John McCain – perhaps the most popular politician in the country – would be a certain loser. To say that this is a good war to fight if only there were public support for it is like saying this would be a great car if only the engine worked.

I’ve noticed that the farther right you are on the political spectrum the more likely you are to embrace principle-based ethics: “does this action follow my principles?” Liberals and moderates, on the other hand, tend to prefer utilitarian calculations: “does this action lead to the greater good?” While a principle-based ethics may have many advantages on a personal level, on the world stage it is potentially disastrous. It should be of very little consolation to President Bush that he is following his principles if doing so leads to a greater amount of death and misery.

Now there may be a way to bargain with the public. If the Iraq Study Group comes up with a plan that at least reduces troop commitment, and if bi-partisan support can give that policy cover, then maybe we can embark on a strategy that is sustainable. But to ignore political concerns is to deny the peculiar nature of a democracy at war, and to spurn the lessons that reasonable Republicans have tried to impart.

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