In radio and television interviews since the election, I have argued repeatedly that the November 7 vote did not just empower Democrats to do the right thing with regard to the Iraq debacle. It also freed up Republicans -- particularly Senate Republicans who have long been ill at ease with the neoconservative nonsense peddled by the Bush administration.
Now that the votes have been counted, the American people are ready for swift steps to extract U.S. forces from a no-win situation.
Yet, while Democratic leaders talk of "going slow," smart Republicans are recognizing the political opening and seizing it.
Case in point: Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel's opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post.
Hagel has long been blunter than his Democratic colleagues about the disaster that the Iraq occupation has become for the U.S. The Nebraska Republican was making comparisons between the Vietnam War, in which he served, and the Iraq imbroglio months ago -- at a point when most Senate Democrats were holding their tongues.
Hagel has now taken the mightly leap of declaring that it is time to "form a bipartisan consensus to get out of Iraq."
"We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam," Hagel writes in the Post. "Honorable intentions are not policies and plans. Iraq belongs to the 25 million Iraqis who live there. They will decide their fate and form of government.
While I might disagree with Hagel about the "honorable intentions" of the invasion and occupation, he gets no challenge from this quarter on his observations that the war has been "misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged" and that the Bush administration's approach has been characterized by "arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam."
Hagel is making precisely the case for withdrawal that Congressional Democrats should be offering at this point:
"The United States must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq. The cost of combat in Iraq in terms of American lives, dollars and world standing has been devastating. We've already spent more than $300 billion there to prosecute an almost four-year-old war and are still spending $8 billion per month. The United States has spent more than $500 billion on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And our effort in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, partly because we took our focus off the real terrorist threat, which was there, and not in Iraq," the Nebraskan argues. "We are destroying our force structure, which took 30 years to build. We've been funding this war dishonestly, mainly through supplemental appropriations, which minimizes responsible congressional oversight and allows the administration to duck tough questions in defending its policies. Congress has abdicated its oversight responsibility in the past four years."
Now, with a new Congress about to charge, Hagel writes, "It is not too late. The United States can still extricate itself honorably from an impending disaster in Iraq."
Democrats should be asking themselves: Why is a Republican taking the lead on the issue that played such a pivotal role in putting Democrats in charge of the House and Senate?
The honest answer is an unsettling one.
Right now, Hagel is sounding more realistic and responsible than most if not all of the Democrats who are positioning themselves for 2OO8 presidential runs. Indeed, with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, the first senator to call for an withdrawal timeline, out of the running, Democrats could use a candidate who speaks as directly as does Hagel about the need to get out of Iraq. While it is true that Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who may or may not be running, is a Democrat who has started to make some of the right noises, Obama has not begun to equal the directness of Hagel's declaration that: "The time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq. Militaries are built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations. We are once again learning a very hard lesson in foreign affairs: America cannot impose a democracy on any nation -- regardless of our noble purpose."
This is not to say that Hagel, who entertains presidential ambitions of his own, should switch parties. He's still a domestic-policy conservative, and something of a hawk on foreign policy. Yet, he is the one saying that: "If the president fails to build a bipartisan foundation for an exit strategy, America will pay a high price for this blunder -- one that we will have difficulty recovering from in the years ahead."
If they are outflanked by Republicans like Hagel on the central issue of our time, Democrats will also pay a high price. They will lose the popular support and the moral authority that their November 7 successes gave them. And Americans, who polls show are ready for rapid withdrawal, will give their support to the leaders who are willing to say not just that it is time to bring the troops home but also, as Hagel does, that it is time for the U.S. to radically alter its approach to the Middle East.
Would that the Democratic leadership would say, as Hagel admit, that, "America finds itself in a dangerous and isolated position in the world. We are perceived as a nation at war with Muslims. Unfortunately, that perception is gaining credibility in the Muslim world and for many years will complicate America's global credibility, purpose and leadership. This debilitating and dangerous perception must be reversed as the world seeks a new geopolitical, trade and economic center that will accommodate the interests of billions of people over the next 25 years. The world will continue to require realistic, clear-headed American leadership -- not an American divine mission."
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com