The System Is Working


Maybe this isn't acknowledged enough, but it seems to me that the Founders would for the first time be pleased with how the United States has been adjusting policy and personnel in wartime this past year. I think when historians look back, they will note a few things. The first is that an untrammeled executive branch, high on its own rightness, certain of everything, contemptuous of critics and empowered by understandable public fear ... made all the mistakes you'd expect from one-man rule in a permanent "emergency". The half-assed commitment to Afghanistan, the reckless over-reach with Iraq, the embrace of torture as a primary weapon in the war against Islamic terrorism, the loss of critical allies, the collapse of American moral standing, and then apocalyptic rhetoric over Iran: all this was fueled by a president with no impediments, sealed in an ideological cocoon wound more tightly by his re-election, a victory that reinforced all of his worst instincts in the first term, and lost us two critical years in Iraq.

The Supreme Court made some effort to rein in the president in 2005 and 2006. But the Republican Congress was AWOL, the press cowed, and the government professionals intimidated. All this only really changed in November 2006 with the country sending the opposition party to run the Congress. It was a classic moment of one branch of American government checking the other - saving the other - and correcting course. The Democrats may not have stopped the war, but they helped shift its course. That, in turn, saved the war in Iraq from becoming a complete disaster. Now it's merely a rescuable disaster.

It remains an inconvenient truth that those neocons now hailing the surge's success would not be able to do so if Americans had taken their advice and voted Republican in 2006. Rumsfeld would still be defense secretary and Cheney's grip on national policy would remain unshakable. But it has been shaken, as a reader points out:

Your suggestion that Robert Gates had a hand in the release of the NIE report highlights something that I’ve thought for along time, namely that the single biggest change in the course of the Iraq War was Gates’ replacement of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense.  When Rush Limbaugh and others slam the Democrats for failing to keep their campaign promise to end the War, I think they fail to give credit to the Democrats for the course correction the administration had to make at the time of the last election.

Without a vote for the Democrats in 2006, Gates would probably not be at the Pentagon, and Rice would not have been emboldened to shift course on the peace process, and the CIA might not have had the stomach to fight back against Cheney on Iran intelligence. That was the turning point.

And although it was a Democratic victory, it may help salvage something for the Bush administration's legacy in the Middle East. And that is the deeper point. No single party in our polity can claim credit for all of this. The course adjustment was a function of different entities fighting one another, reacting to events and facts, and thereby forging a more sensible war policy. What no single entity wanted came eventually to pass. It's shaping up to be a text-book lesson in the virtues of separating powers. Dictatorships cannot do this in wartime, which is why they often lose; neither can unchecked executives in democracies. But it's a good thing.

The key players will only emerge definitively with the judgment of history. But my roster of those who helped get us back toward a rational war-policy would put Bob Gates and David Petraeus at the top of the list. Mukasey has a chance to do the same kind of thing at Justice. The system that looked rather fragile for a couple of years has begun to assert itself again. It works. And if the president is wise, he'll allow all this to shift, and take some of the credit. And if the country is wise, they'll pick a successor who can unite the country around a prudent path forward.

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates smiles December 4, 2007 during a tour of the Kabul Military Training Center in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gates is visiting Afghanistan to evaluate rising violence levels. By Haraz N. Ghanbari-Pool/Getty Images.)