WASHINGTON—The Iraq Study Group report indicts American politics as much as the war.
And the way that the 10 Democrats and Republicans forged a unanimous bipartisan consensus—with civility, mutual respect and compromise—could serve as a blueprint to move debate past the often-bitter partisan divide that cripples Washington's ability to solve big national problems, from war to Social Security.
"Many Americans are dissatisfied not just with the situation in Iraq but with the state of our political debate regarding Iraq," the group's report said.
"Americans can and must enjoy the right of a robust debate. . . . Yet U.S. foreign policy is doomed to failure—as is any course of action in Iraq—if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus."
That's a lesson that the war in Vietnam once taught. This report says it needs to be relearned, for the good of the country.
The use of slogans by politicians and media blowhards to oversimplify and to dismiss opponents inflames our politics, it suggests.
"We stayed away from a lot of terms that have been bandied about during the campaign season in the political debate," said group co-chairman James Baker, a former Republican secretary of state.
"You probably won't find `civil war' in here," he said of the report. "You won't find `victory.' But you will find `success.'"
"This war has badly divided this country," said Leon Panetta, a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives and White House chief of staff under President Clinton. "It's divided Republicans from Democrats, and to some extent the president from the people. And policy sometimes . . . has been reduced to a 30-second sound bite that runs the gamut from `victory' or `stay the course' to `cut and run.'"
Panetta urged President Bush to adopt the same approach to find political common ground.
That would be a change in tactics for a White House that sought through three elections—2002, 2004 and 2006—to portray Democratic opposition to its policies as unpatriotic. During the recent campaign, for example, Bush said the Democratic approach to Iraq amounted to: "The terrorists win and America loses."
On Wednesday, however, White House spokesman Tony Snow lauded the civility of Bush's meeting with the Iraq Study Group and applauded Panetta's goal. "We need to become united," Snow said. "Members of the study group think that they have found a way, and we are certainly going to study it with great care."
It also would be a change for Democrats, who've used the war for partisan gain. The Democratic National Committee, for example, frequently issues news releases trumpeting the latest bad news out of Iraq.
Another factor in the Iraq debate has been a growing tendency for each side to cast the other as evil, and even attack its own allies who are willing to compromise. They're what former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming called "100 percenters," people who want everything on their own terms or nothing at all.
"Well, we're just sincere enough to believe that . . . all people with a D behind their name did not become a guard at Lenin's tomb, and all people with an R behind their name did not crawl out of a cave in the mountains, and that maybe we can do something," Simpson said.
"And that's what we're here for, people of good will in good faith. Maybe it's corny, maybe it won't work, but it's sure as hell better than sitting there where we are right now."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.