Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Grand Narrative

There are two issues with respect to Iraq and everything else, the policy and the politics/rhetoric. They do not exist independently and it's much easier to spin a compelling narrative around an actual policy. This is difficult with Iraq because it's such a multi-faceted complex constantly evolving situation. While there are some policies (good or bad) which can be communicated ("more troops!" "internationalize the situation!" "leave Iraq now!") fairly simply, it isn't really a situation which lends itself to easy politicking, no matter what your actual desired policy is. It would be nice if the Democrats could construct a credible "what we should do next" policy, but that gets increasingly difficult, and it's even more difficult to construct a policy onto which a compelling narrative can be grafted. At the moment all they are capable of doing is criticizing things around the edges ("should have more troops," "should've done better with the reconstruction," etc...) but none of these criticisms is any match for the grand narrative of the Bush administration "we are spreading Democracy and freedom in Iraq."

There is only one way to construct an alternative grand narrative on Iraq. It isn't enough to say "we were right to invade Iraq but Bush has handled it badly and we would've done better if we'd done X." That Does Not Work. All it says is Bush fucked up a bit but, hey, none of us perfect.

The only thing that will work is to say "we were wrong to invade Iraq." That's the grand narrative which will resonate when a majority of the population happens to agree with this statement. That's your narrative. Onto that you of course have to add some sort of what we should do next policy.

Right now too many Democrats think that their credibility on this issue is tied with their previous support for the war. That is false. That's what gives them their lack of credibility. The only way to start speaking with any credibility on the issue is to go back to the beginning and say it was a bad idea, we were lied to, we shouldn't have trusted them then and we can't trust them now.

War is messy. Everyone halfway sensible knows that. Pointing out the imperfections of the situation in Iraq will never resonate enough because no matter how corrupt and incompetent this administration has been, people understand that war is messy. Micromanagement suggestions are not a compelling alternative vision.

None of this addresses the "what should we really do next" policy question. In 2004 we tried to argue that what we need to do next is put more competent people in charge. That argument failed, and we're stuck with incompetence for 4 more years. It's no longer an option. As a matter of pure politics, since the Dems actually have no ability to implement an Iraq policy, I'm actually happy for them to propose whatever might win them some elections. That isn't being overly cynical - I've offered the same advice on domestic policy. It's what a minority party does - makes proposals which have no chance of being enacted which appeal to the electorate and make your side an appealing alternative. If the smart people toiling away at various think tanks have smart solutions which might make some actual progress, they're free to bring them to the president and he's free to ignore them. I see no reason to pointlessly offer practical but unappealing solutions which will neither be enacted nor win us any votes. If "free kittens for everyone in Iraq!" wins us votes, then that's our policy. If "nuke them all!" wins votes, I could even potentially be convinced that we should say that, as long as we had some rhetorical exit strategy from that plan (I'm largely kidding on this one, but I could approve of some asskicking rhetoric).

But, I find it impossible to believe that the Democrats can ever construct an appealing alternative narrative on this subject until they acknowledge that we shouldn't have gone there in the first place.

...let me add that that it isn't just about winning elections. If I belived that our team could in fact somehow manage to influence actual Iraq policy in a positive way by making sensible proposals which somehow the Bush administration would be pressured to adopt then I would encourage that. But, no amount of blabbering to Timmeh about what we should do is going to accomplish that, so what's the point?