We can only imagine the debates that occurred in the meetings of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan 10-member panel that has just released its recommendations for new directions in the U.S. engagement with Iraq. Much in the report assesses the situation on-the-ground in Iraq and predicts catastropic consequences if the U.S. does not quickly adopt new strategies to restore civic order and eventually achieve peace.
While digesting those details, on which I will reflect in the days to come, tonight I was particularly struck by what this report said about the people of the United States. “Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance of rhetoric,” wrote co-chairs James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton. “Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people to win their support…” Baker, a Republican, was Secretary of State in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, father of the current president. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a highly regarded Democratic Congressman. They and their colleagues achieved consensus on a broad range of recommendations to begin to try to fix the very broken policy failure that is the Iraq war.
Can this spirit of consensus prevail with the White House, Congress and the American public?
Baker and Hamilton continued, “What we recommend in this report demands a tremendous amount of political will and cooperation by the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government…success depends on the unity of the American people in a time of political polarization. Americans can and must enjoy the right of robust debate within a democracy. Yet U.S. foreign policy is doomed to failure — as is any course of action in Iraq — if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus.”
Since the presidential election of the Year 2000 that required Supreme Court intervention to resolve the outcome, and well before the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 that triggered the War on Terrorism and the Iraq War, this nation has been bitterly polarized. In the early years of this war, debate was suppressed, opposition was considered unpatriotic if not grounds for accusations of treason. Yet, had the kind of “robust debate” that Baker and Hamilton acknowledge now been forthcoming at a much earlier time, perhaps thousands of American and Iraqi lives would have been saved, perhaps the people of Iraq would have been spared their current nightmare.
The Founders of this nation recognized Freedom of Speech not simply as a courtesy, but as a bedrock principle to sustain a true democracy. Freedom of Speech does not defeat the goal of broad, sustained consensus — rather, robust debate ensures that the consensus can last. It’s when speech is repressed that mistakes are made and resentments fester, impeding the consensus necessary to move ahead.
Note that Baker and Hamilton say that political leaders must “win the support” of the American people — not dictate support, not demand consensus, but “win” support. Leaders of both parties need to remember that point. The recent election underscores the power of the American people — and neither party should feel so affirmed that they quit working to “win” the people’s support again and again. “We the People” govern the nation. That’s why “robust debate” is so important.
Let’s hope this bitter experience will make Americans more soundly committed to the robust debate over national policy that should never have gone quite so silent.