The Perils of Deliberation

Suddenly, George W. Bush has become a thoughtful, reflective and deliberate leader—or so he tells us. Following the release of the Iraq Study Group’s findings, simply “rushing” into a new strategy (read: “cut and run; cut and walk; “graceful exit,” pick your poison) is now a bad idea. We have gone from “slam-dunk” to “Well, just wait there a minute, fella!” Only those who were against the war in the first place (or, alternatively, those who think no one pays attention as they daily sample the winds of political change and switch directions accordingly) are asking: where was caution and real deliberation before the invasion of Iraq?

That question assumes that the administration’s policy of invading Iraq was the product of a deliberative process. Please! The rush to war was so furious that even the advice of sages such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft to move cautiously went unheard. Those urging deliberation were brushed aside and labeled “unpatriotic.” “French fries” were removed from Capitol Hill menus to protest France’s recalcitrance in threatening a veto of any U.S.-backed resolution to the U.N. Security Council to authorize the invasion.

(For just a moment, think about how unbelievably silly that “freedom fries” business was. How embarrassing. Such an action does not reflect reasoned debate. But I digress).

So now Bush wants to take it slow. He said that many reports issued in Washington never get read, and just gather dust. But he has read the Report, and would like to think about it a bit. He has lots of other people thinking about what to do and how to do it. The “Decider” is now the “Listener,” “George the Deliberator.”

What about “the Staller?” “The Stonewaller?” Some are suggesting that the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation will actually suffer the dusty death suggested by the president after all. The idea is that once the report has fallen out of the news cycle, and this “deliberative process” has emerged and takes on a life of its own, the White House will drive the agenda, shift the discourse, basically ignoring all or most of the Study Group’s recommendations. This move has many furious. Reading the letters to the editor of the New York Times—despite the obvious ideological leaning of Times readers—clearly reflects a great deal of impatience. There is a strong feeling out there that the voters expressed their strong displeasure with the current policy in Iraq in November. They wonder what is going on—and see behind this “Stall to January” just another wily move by a sneaky President to get around doing anything that would signal a significant change in policy. They point to the fact that the President Bush has made it pretty clear which of the ISG’s recommendations will not receive much of an audience within the White House.

Whether Bush has actually become deliberative and thoughtful—which I doubt—or whether this stalling is simply a reflection of how paralyzed this administration has become is not the point of this short essay. What I am more interested in is a broader question: what is the role of deliberation in the formulation of U.S. policy at this point in time, given the “grave” deterioration of both the political and military situation in Iraq? Is this pause, which began before the election and which will continue into early next year, truly a moment for deliberation? Will we (the American public) deliberate? Can we be patient to try to find solutions (if there are any) that might make some sense?

I wonder. We have been told since the day after the elections that the results were a clear message to the White House: do something different. Now. This is the same public that, from November 2002 to March 2003 (while U.N. weapons inspectors were making slow but steady progress in getting Saddam Hussein to comply with the disarmament resolutions), were demanding, invade now! “Get ‘r done!” Just because the American public has lost support for the war—a fact that makes those who opposed the policy all along enormously happy—does not mean that they have changed their minds about how policy should be formed. We are running a substantial risk of the danger we faced in the un-deliberative moments before the invasion. Policy driven by the whims of the American electorate is a policy of disaster. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.

Let me qualify that: this obviously was George W. Bush’s war. The “sheep” we have become (or perhaps always have been) simply bleated (loudly) our approval. The administration did a masterful job of selling us quite a bit of snake oil. This is our war. The solution has to be ours as well. That means we have to consider everything, and stop demanding that the administration simply do something because we’ve become uneasy about the body bags. That “something” should be carefully thought out and debated. Those who have been paying attention, listening to experts rather than elected officials, are keenly aware of how many options there are out there, and how many of those contradict one another. For example, some argue, persuasively, that Iraq is a failed state and that “enough is enough” because we’ll never find a political solution upon which our whole military mission is based. Others argue, persuasively as well, that we need a “surge” of new forces to do what we needed to do in the first place.

Which is a better idea? I cannot say. What I will say is that careful and sustained deliberation goes from the shallowness of supposed opposites to deeper explorations into assumptions and theories driving such policy prescriptions. That is where we need to bring this discussion. In my opinion, we need to talk about the wisdom of a “unity government.” We need to think about whether Iraqi national institutions—whether the constitutional structure, the military, and other institutions—are truly national or have simply become institutionalized arenas for sectarianism. We need to think about the bleeding away of important and almost irreplaceable human resources from the country. We need seriously to consider the place of Iraq in the politics of the Middle East. We need to talk about assumptions and challenge them.

That’s a lot to talk about. Let’s get to it.

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~ by de cive on December 19, 2006.

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