The War's End?

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Nothing is over!!! Nothing!!! You just don't turn it off! It wasn't my war! You asked me, I didn't ask you!

--Rambo: First Blood

The juxtaposition of David Brooks and Peter Beinart both opining that nobody cares about Iraq any more right before a New York Times poll came out revealing that "more people cite the Iraq war as the most important issue facing the country than cite any other matter" sure is odd. Equally odd, in many respects, is the logic Beinart used to reach his conclusion:

Last month, Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times live-blogged the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. As the discussion bounced from subject to subject, she marked the topic and the time, then gave her thoughts. At 8:34 p.m., it was driver’s licenses; 8:55, Pakistan; 9:57, the Supreme Court. By night’s end she had 17 entries totaling almost 1,500 words. And she hadn’t typed “Iraq” once.

Basically, the evidence for Beinart's side is that media elites who control the debate questioning process don't want to talk about the war. Conversely, the public does seem to think the war is very important. This is particularly interesting since historically elites care a lot more about foreign policy questions than does the public at large, which tends to be more focused on so-called "bread and butter" issues.

This seems akin to what I wrote about over the summer in the LA Times when we had a spurt of calls for a lowering of the partisan temperature over the Iraq issue. And, of course, we saw something similar about a year ago when all the little people were supposed to hush up and let the Iraq Study Group sort things out for us.

There is, in essence, a powerful desire to avoid an "accountability moment" in which the people who played a role in bamboozling a large swathe of the public into backing the war are called onto the carpet. There's a desire to believe that there's only one strategy the United States could possibly be pursuing in the world and that, therefore, the only debates to be had are boring tactical ones that couldn't possibly engage the public mind. Invading Iraq was, perhaps, an error -- but an unavoidable one, something that just happened. Then mistakes were made in the implementation, but now better implementation is at hand, so the debate is over. After all, if Bush has now largely adopted the tactics the liberal hawks once criticized him for not adopting, what could there possibly be to argue about? And so how could the public possibly care? After all, there aren't any questions about it in Kit Seelye's notebook?

Obviously, though, this is a big deal. To observe that monthly casualty rates for American soldiers are now lower than they once were (2007 is still the deadliest year) s neither here nor there -- one big, obvious virtue of the "let's leave" alternative is that it gets our troops' fatalities down to nothing. Meanwhile, the small mercy of this war has always been that fatalities among our soldiers have been pretty low by historical standards. But despite that there's the small issue of whether or not we should really be proceeding on this course. Of course it's a big deal!

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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