EVER SINCE the Bush administration embarked upon its Iraq venture, it has taken a strict, inflexible line on the past: Forget about it.
Given the unending string of catastrophic misjudgments by President Bush and his national security team, future generations will be aghast to learn that the first member of the president's inner circle to leave this administration -- White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. -- was one unassociated with a war that has dramatically weakened America's standing, America's economy and America's security.
The administration's desire to avoid drawing attention to Iraq is not surprising. Children fib to cover their tracks; Catholic bishops juggle their priests to do so; and corporate executives shift the focus to next year's profit forecasts to avoid this year's bottom line. It is the rare individual in public life who acknowledges responsibility for error without being forced to do so -- John F. Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs and Dwight Eisenhower in anticipation of an unsuccessful Normandy landing are two examples that come to mind.
But even more remarkable than the administration's convenient amnesia these last two years has been the seeming reluctance of foreign policy veterans in the Democratic Party to challenge it. Democratic critics of the administration, for the most part, have been cowed into making either "constructive," forward-looking comments or none at all.
There are many understandable reasons for the Democrats' relative quiet; opposition parties have a notoriously difficult time finding an appropriate voice in wartime. But these reasons must be overcome, or both the United States and the Democratic Party will suffer the consequences.
On the occasions when critics have challenged the Bush administration, of course, its officials have done a brilliant job of turning defense into offense. They argue that those who insist on looking back -- which is derided as "rehashing" and "dwelling on the past" -- are undermining U.S. security.
Those who dare question whether Bush's doctrine of spreading democracy around the globe is working out as planned are caricatured as longing for a return to an era of torture and tyranny.
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice testified on Capitol Hill in February, one Senate Democrat asked whether electoral gains by Islamists were harming U.S. interests. Rice responded by suggesting that the senator found it "preferable" to stick with "dictators like Saddam Hussein, who put 300,000 people in mass graves." When the senator pressed the matter, Rice said the question "assumes that the Middle East was safer when ideologies of hatred produced people that flew airplanes into our buildings on 9/11."
There were, it seemed, only two ways forward in the Middle East: the Bush way and the mass death way.
But there are other reasons besides Republican spin for the Democrats' lack of resonance. Initially, when the WMD didn't turn up, many Democrats refrained from comment because so many of them -- 29 in the Senate and 81 in the House -- had voted for the resolution to authorize the war and thus felt implicated in the blunder. And prominent Democrats feared that they would undermine the morale of U.S. troops in harm's way. When Bill Clinton was asked in 2003 about Bush's erroneous claims about Niger yellowcake, he urged Americans to focus on the future. "You know, everybody makes mistakes when they are president," he said.
Democrats have also been silenced by Republican control of Congress. Because they cannot call hearings or subpoena witnesses, the accountability they can demand is drastically limited.
Today, leading Democrats would be heard and hailed if they had a solution to offer on Iraq. But because all the options are bad options, and the American people want to hear good options, Democrats are reluctant to cry over spilled milk (and blood). With U.S. troops destined to remain in harm's way for the foreseeable future -- even if at reduced strength -- dredging up past blunders seems at best beside the point and at worst (and Karl Rove would be sure to highlight the worst), treasonous. Few Democrats have amassed the Purple Hearts of a John Murtha to withstand the kind of slander that felled Max Cleland in his Senate reelection bid.
In recent months, the Democrats have taken steps to push for accountability. But few have attracted media attention and all have slammed the Bush administration's tactical blunders -- intelligence failures, contract corruption and torture -- rather than declaring Iraq an enormous strategic blunder in the war on terror. Few have called the war what most Americans now understand it to have been: a mistake.
In 2006, most Democrats are laying low on Iraq, allowing the war to damage the Republican Party all by itself. With Bush's poll numbers hovering at about 35% and a number of once-untouchable GOP seats in the House vulnerable, the Democrats can be forgiven for believing that their approach is working.