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The War at Home

By Daniel Henninger

Notwithstanding its 79 recommendations for "the way forward," the Iraq Study Group's primary purpose wasn't saving Iraq from catastrophe but saving the political system of the United States from catastrophe.

The commission's two chairs, Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, make this explicit in the report's first pages. "U.S. foreign policy is doomed to failure . . . if it is not supported by a broad, sustained consensus." Leon Panetta, a Democrat in the House from 1977 to 1993, said at their news conference, "This country cannot be at war and be as divided as it is today."

These are essentially restatements of GOP Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's 1952 dictum amid the Truman presidency that "politics stops at the water's edge." More than a sentiment, Vandenberg's point was, as he put it, "to unite our official voice at the water's edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us." For the past three years, we have had the opposite--a domestic political war waged relentlessly at the water's edge.

Now comes the ISG report, and based on the Beltway reaction to it, one has to wonder whether the call yesterday for unity and bipartisanship by Messrs. Baker, Hamilton, Panetta and former Sen. Alan Simpson was disingenuous or naive. Washington took their study and went completely over the edge. The morning-after press reporting on the Baker-Hamilton report can only be described as neurotic glee. Over endless columns, reporters ransacked their thesauruses for words to unload pent-up antipathy toward the Bush White House: failed, repudiated, dire, abject failure, deeply pessimistic, disdain, replete with damning details, a rebuke, a remarkable condemnation.

For the Bush opposition and its beliefs, this White House has become the most odious and illegitimate presidency (the disputed 2000 Florida result) of the last century. Opposing it became a moral imperative. We can pinpoint the moment the Vandenberg ethos died. It was when one Democratic senator, Joe Lieberman, tried to bridge the partisan divide. He was culled from the party herd, shunned and left for dead by his oldest friends in the Senate.

Note that the ISG report at no point includes the words Guantanamo, warrantless wiretaps, Swift surveillance, secret prisons or the Patriot Act. These are the Bush policies in the war on terror, presumably the war "we all support." And they are the names of the most famous Washington battlefields of recent years. All this, like Iraq, has been repudiated, denounced and condemned as a moral violation.

This bloodbath at the water's edge has produced a divided, bitter nation. The American people are dispirited and depressed, even after the election. An AP/Ipsos poll taken the week after the November vote showed Congress's ratings fell, to 26%, 10 points below the president's in the same poll. It looks like the voters have replaced the traditional post-election honeymoon with a political prenuptial agreement.

Before this Sunday's talk shows use the Baker-Hamilton bulldozer to bury alive the Bush Doctrine and the "neoconservatives," let us suggest there is an alternative version of the Iraq narrative--one that is less a collapse of doctrine than simply the result of bad, possibly fatal, decisions the administration made in 2003.

The years 2003-05 don't exist in the ISG study, which is almost wholly about the horrors of the past year. But in the war's immediate aftermath, from May 2003 onward, Baghdad was rebuilding, notwithstanding continued violence. Retail commerce came to life. A strong real-estate market emerged. New cars filled the streets, and Iraq's universities reopened. But it was also in May that someone in the Bush administration made the worst decision of the war, as described on this page in June by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in an interview with our Robert Pollock.

"The biggest mistake, honestly, if you go back," said Mr. Zebari, "was not entrusting the Iraqis as partners, to empower them, to see them do their part, to fill the vacuum, to have a national unity government."

The opportunity existed at that moment to form an Iraqi unity government, likely consisting of the religious Shiites Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the Sunni Adnan Pachachi, Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and secular Shiites Ahmed Chalabi and Ayad Allawi.

Instead, someone in Washington (it has never been clear exactly who) decided to push them aside in favor of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. This was fatal because for two years, until last December's election, Iraqis had nothing--other than tribes, sects and militias--to commit themselves to politically.

Recall how over that period the insurgents repeatedly targeted police stations and police recruits. They knew that a functioning police posed the greatest danger to their plans to reduce Baghdad to a brutal anarchy that would drain the spirit of both Iraqis and Americans. It worked. For two years there was no "Iraqi" entity for their police to fight and die for.

Certainly opinions can differ on whether these Iraqi leaders in 2003 could have achieved the vaunted "national reconciliation" at the heart of the ISG report. But it is a more plausible, discrete explanation of what went wrong than the preposterously exaggerated celebration (there is no other word) of total American "failure" emanating from the Baker-Hamilton report now.

In short order, the Iraq story will enter 2008's presidential politics. To his credit, John McCain distanced himself from the report, which has turned into an unedifying pig-wallow for one swath of our political culture. The Washington Post yesterday reported that Democratic congressional aides say they'll make sure Mr. Bush still "owns" the Iraq war so he gets tagged if Baker-Hamilton fails.

Leon Panetta is already getting an answer to his belief that a divided nation cannot be at war. Oh yes it can--if defeating the enemy at home is more important than defeating the enemy abroad.

Daniel Henninger is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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