The Water's Edge and the Iraq Study Group

I have always been puzzled by the claim that "politics should stop at the water's edge." I don't mean that I fail to comprehend the aphorism. The idea is simple enough: Foreign policy matters are of such great importance that partisans should put aside their petty squabbles to come together in the national interest. What puzzles me is how anyone could think just this. The saying seems to assume that it IS okay for us to have politics -- understood as a debased, dishonest discourse -- about such domestic matters as wealth distribution, environmental protection, medical care, and so forth. Even if one thinks that these issues aren't quite so important as foreign policy, they're certainly important enough that one wouldn't want them to be "politicized." If this is one's view, then one should simply say "politics should stop."

I happen to think that in some circumstances, what I'll call "small-p" politics are just the ticket in matters of foreign policy. For example, in a well-functioning electoral system, the public, having soured on the Iraq war, would have turned out not just a few dozen Republican Senators and House members but hundreds of members of both parties who supported this tragic policy blunder in the first place. The political cowardice of leading Democrats in 2002 and 2003 left the nominally opposition party unable to criticize the misadventure in 2006 as fundamentally foolhardy, relying instead on the considerably weaker, albeit still potent, argument that the occupation was bungled through arrogance and incompetence. (I take no satisfaction in the fact that my early criticisms of the war's legality and possible consequences have been largely vindicated.)

As the nation anticipates the recommendations of James Baker's bipartisan Iraq Study Group, however, I have come to see the "water's edge" from a somewhat different perspective. Any successful extrication of the United States from Iraq will have to be able to define success in a way that would have been unthinkable by the war's proponents four years ago. Because Saddam lacked WMDs, the war necessarily did not disarm him; a secular constitutional democracy that will be a model for the whole Middle East is an impossible prospect; even the possibility of a Western-friendly autocracy like Egypt or Jordan now looks like far too much to hope for; realistically, stable partition with the largest portion of Iraq aligned with Iran is at the optimistic end of what we might still accomplish. If we had healthy politics, this outcome would end not only the political career of the Republican bunglers in charge, but also their Democratic facilitators. But we don't have healthy politics, and in order for our current, tainted politicians to be able to save face, those of us who opposed this war from the very beginning may have to accept the forget-about-how-we-got-into-this-mess-here's-what-we-should-do-now spirit in which the Baker report will likely be presented and received. That may be the price of ending U.S. involvement in the Iraqi civil war we catalyzed, and if so, it may even be a price that we longtime critics should be willing to bear. But it's worth noting that "politics should stop at the water's edge" here really means something more like "criticism of the politicians in charge should stop at the water's edge." Maybe that's all it ever means.