The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, has set off a fire storm of criticism on the left about why they should be allowed to comment, or why their views should be considered. Here, for example, is Brian Beutler, senior editor of the New Republic, commenting on that journal’s website. At the Washington Post’s “Plum Line,” here is Paul Waldman. Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, not with a touch of irony given the Carter administration’s foreign-policy track record, writes, “a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today’s disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence.” And, of course, the New York Times chimes in. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair advises tuning out anyone with the last name “Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Boot, or, how apt, Slaughter.” The irony, of course, is that the names he puts forward often do not agree on policy prescriptions.
How sad, silly, and reflective of the naked partisanship that has done more than anything else to undercut Iraq. I read more bloggers on the left than I do on the right, even if I disagree with them. The argument always matters more than the person who makes them. The arbitrariness of it can also be infuriating. Why single out Wolfowitz, Bremer, and Cheney, but not Crocker, Khalilzad, Armitage, Rice, Powell, and Wilkerson? All supported the conflict in Iraq. Some subsequently walked away but the nature of government is that when decisions are made, even if you disagree with them, you move on to get the best possible outcome. Zalmay Khalilzad, Ryan Crocker, and Stephen Hadley favored a longer occupation because they thought U.S. political leverage would be greater in the formation of a new Iraqi government with boots on the ground; Wolfowitz and Cheney opposed that. But once the decision was made, it was important to achieve the best that could be achieved.
And while some who are counseling shutting Bush administration folks out of the debate might say they are free to speak—and so the charge of McCarthyism doesn’t apply—but simply that they should not be listened to, perhaps some reflection is needed about the merits of having a closed mind.
There’s a more nuanced argument put out there by Peter Beinart which essentially boils down to: “Let them speak, but only after they confess.” It really is the Spanish Inquisition philosophy of punditry: “I am so obviously right that anyone who disagrees with my interpretation should first confess or face punishment.” Left unsaid is that there are still debates about de-Baathification and the dissolution (and immediate rebuilding) of the Iraqi army. After all, the conscripts had deserted: Would the Beinarts and Beutlers of the world suggest bringing them back at gunpoint? Keeping the top brass with blood on their hands? (The actual problem had more to do with disorganized pension payments.)
Geoff Dyer at the Financial Times wrote rather cynically that the Bush team was using the Iraqi crisis only to defend their records. That’s a fair point to make, but there’s a less cynical spin: Many in the Bush team—at least those who have remained engaged in Iraq—know Iraqis and remain deeply committed to the country. It wasn’t simply a Washington career-ladder thing, but something more. Now I’ll be cynical: I believe President Obama made a naked political calculation: He would withdraw from Iraq. If it collapsed, he’d blame Bush and if it somehow stayed together, he’d brag about his own wisdom. The problem with that is that it treats Iraqis as pawns. The decisions Obama makes or doesn’t make are relevant.
Long story short: The howls of outrage about Vice President Cheney voicing his opinion reflect just how poisonous the Washington debate has become, and how negative it is to policymaking when personalities count more than ideas.