Imagine the scenario 18 months from now. A newly-elected Democratic president has announced a short timetable for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq and the first brigades have already made the journey home. Iraq remains unstable, bomb attacks continue to kill civilians and, backed by a chorus of right-wing talk shows, the Republicans mount a furious campaign accusing the Democrats of cutting and running.
Just when the U.S. army had scented victory, the lily-livered White House pulled the rug out. "The Democrats are defeatists," "They're quitting under fire," "They're stabbing our brave men and women in the back."
In the unlikely event that the Democrats have a large majority in the House and Senate, they will be able to laugh the charges off. But if, more probably, their margin is slim, it may not be easy.
Better therefore to get the "defeat" word on the table now, in 2008. Make a pre-emptive strike this year, while the Republicans still control the White House. They are the ones who took the U.S. into a doomed occupation of Iraq. They are the people who deserve to take the blame.
Defeat is a powerful word, and no country or person likes to use it. Even to mention it invites the charge of being unpatriotic. So it is no accident that in Washington, critics of the war prefer the F-words -- failure, fiasco, and folly. But the decision to stay in Iraq after toppling Saddam Hussein was worse than that. It was bound to lead to defeat. The U.S. did not lose on the battlefield, but every political goal that the Bush administration set for itself has been thwarted. So the verdict on the U.S. adventure has to be "military stalemate, political defeat."
Bush sought to justify the occupation as a vital element in the war on terror. Yet al Qaeda is now implanted in Iraq where it never was before, and thousands of new jihadi recruits are getting valuable training and experience in provoking death and destruction. That is Defeat number one.
Bush wanted to mount a demonstration of overwhelming U.S. power in the region so as to reduce Iran's influence. Instead, he put U.S. troops into a quagmire that has already cost 4,000 lives and helped to install a Shia Islamist government in Baghdad that has close links to Tehran. That is Defeat number two.
Bush and the neo-cons wanted to turn Iraq into a secular pro-Western democracy that would be a model for other Arab states. Iraq has become a humanitarian catastrophe that no sane nation or people would wish to copy. Defeat number three.
Finally, by toppling Saddam Hussein Bush hoped to enhance the feelings of sympathy, respect, and solidarity which many people around the world expressed for the United States after 9/11. Instead, by occupying Iraq and denying it genuine sovereignty, he has undermined America's image and reputation, not just in the Middle East but in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Defeat number four.
The Republicans should not be allowed to escape the blame. It is not the U.S. forces and the American people who have been defeated, though they have had to bear the costs of Bush's disastrous decisions As the country's official oppoition, the Democrats should have the political courage to use the D-word and pin on it on those who led the country into political defeat.
The Democrats control both Houses of Congress. Why don't the chairpeople of the relevant committees call hearings this spring and fall to call administration officials to account for what has gone wrong? Label the hearings "The Lessons of Defeat" or "The Reasons for Defeat," and get Bush's past and present people -- the Wolfowitzes, the Feiths, the Rumsfelds, the Cards, the Roves, and all the others -- to explain why they did no analysis of the political consequences within Iraq and the region of occupying the country. Did any official prepare pre-war option papers that assessed the Iraqi mood, or were the assurances from Cheney and Wolfowitz that the troops would be met with flowers simply propaganda?
Why did the intelligence community not recognise the strength of political Islam in Iraq, or foresee that the forces that would inherit the post-Saddam vacuum would not be the secular pro-Western exiles who paraded through Washington before the war? Why did Bush's advisers not realise that jihadi militants would flood Iraq if the United States stayed too long? How could Bush imagine that the U.S. and Britain -- the two countries with the longest recent history of intervention in the Middle East and the Gulf -- could send troops to occupy an Arab country on an open-ended basis and not meet Iraqi suspicion, resentment, and opposition?
Blunders made by the Coalition Provisional Authority -- disbanding the Iraqi army, dissolving the Baath party, failing to stop the lotting -- are not the main problem. The very concept of occupation was doomed. Once Saddam was toppled, Iraqis should have been given control of their own country.
Of course the Democrats are divided on Iraq. Some want to withdraw fast, others more or less support Bush's undefined strategy of "staying the course." Some support Hillary. Some support Obama. Some think the "surge" is working. Others doubt it. But the best way to forge party unity is to hold hearings on the recent past. Otherwise Bush may get away with his absurd claims of looming victory.
Holding such hearings would also help to focus the presidential campaign on Iraq as an issue. After five years of war it seems absurd to think the Republicans can mount a better case than those who want to end it. Can a candidate who suggests keeping US troops in Iraq for another hundred years (with 4,000 dead in the last five years, that means condeming another 80,000 to death over a century) and who thinks Iran is training al Qaeda really convince Americans he understands security issues? Iraq is the Republicans' weakest link. Are the Democrats really unable to exploit it? Iraq needs to be at the centre of the Democrats' campaign. Holding Congressional hearings over a series of weeks is the best way to lift the Iraq debate above the level of soundbites, and keep the public spotlight on what went wrong, and why.
Some American analysts to whom I have been making this case in Washington in recent days say the strategy may be too risky in domestic political terms because defeat is such an explosive concept. Yet they also concede that the Republicans will have no compunction about using the D-word if the Democrats regain the White House. On balance, therefore, it looks best to seize the moment now. In 2009, for the Republicans to accuse the Democrats of defeat in Iraq would be pure political spin. In 2008, for the Democrats to accuse the Republicans of defeat is a charge that carries the weight of irrefutable evidence. The fingerprints on the Iraq disaster belong to Bush and those who worked with him.
Jonathan Steele is Senior Foreign Correspondent for the Guardian.
His book, DEFEAT: why America and Britain lost Iraq is published by Counterpoint Press this week.