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Political Leaders’ Silence on Iraq War Is a Dereliction of Duty

Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier who has been camping outside President Bush’s Texas ranch, is an impassioned witness but an imperfect messenger. Her leftist foreign policy agenda is as unlikely to draw majority support as the militant unilateralism of the hard-core neoconservatives.

But Sheehan will have done the nation a service if she inspires, or shames, both parties to resume debate over the direction of the Iraq war.

Few mainstream analysts in either party believe Sheehan’s solution -- withdrawing all U.S. troops immediately -- is the right answer.

But no one should expect a grieving mother camping in a field to “solve” the Iraq war. She’s not a military strategist. She is a citizen with an inherent right to demand answers from her government. And she is doing so at a time when too many others have stopped asking questions.

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Serious debate about the war has practically vanished in Washington. It’s difficult to find many people outside the administration who are satisfied with either the costs (in American lives) or the benefits (the progress toward establishing a secure, pro-Western Iraqi state) of current policies. It is even more difficult to find any major figure willing to publicly offer a significant alternative.

This amounts to a political dereliction of duty.

When casualties in Iraq are rising even as stability recedes, political leaders are obligated to ask every possible question about the strategy, tactics and goals that have placed our forces in harm’s way.

The response might be to withdraw troops, or to temporarily add more, or to change our expectations of what might be achieved in Iraq. Maybe Bush’s approach of maintaining a large U.S. presence while training Iraqis and working to sustain as much national unity as possible will prove the best of imperfect alternatives.

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But most Democrats and Republicans are abandoning their responsibilities by leaving the problem solely to Bush without addressing any of these issues.

Admittedly, on each side, the political incentives for silence are strong. Many insiders say that in private, more elected Republicans are growing uneasy about the war; after all, GOP politicians are the ones most likely to bear the brunt, in 2006 and 2008, if public disillusionment with the conflict ignites a backlash.

A handful of Republicans (Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, Sen. John McCain of Arizona) want Bush to send more troops in the hope of quelling the insurgency; a few Republicans want to disengage (such as Donald Devine of the American Conservative Union, who wrote last week that “the only solution is for the U.S. to exit before the whole thing comes apart”; or Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who Sunday described the U.S. position as “a bogged-down problem not unsimilar or dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam”).

But most Republicans have chosen to fall in line behind the White House.

It isn’t hard to see why: Although support for the war has collapsed among Democrats and skidded among independents, it remains remarkably solid among rank-and-file Republicans.

In an early August Gallup survey, 80% of Republicans said they believed “the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over,” compared with 36% of independents and 12% of Democrats. In that environment, questioning the president isn’t easy.

Democrats face a different problem. Their core supporters have hardened against the war: In the Gallup poll, 85% of Democrats said the war was a mistake. But many in the party, although much of the left insists otherwise, fear that challenging Bush too aggressively on Iraq will open Democrats to charges of weakness on defense.

Another political calculation has encouraged Democrats to stay low. Strategists on both sides generally believe the absence of a clear Democratic alternative has hurt Bush in the near term. By staying off stage, Democrats have kept the focus on whether Bush’s strategy is working, not whether anyone else has a better idea. Instead of debating Democrats on Iraq, Bush is debating events. And as his sinking poll results show, he’s losing the debate.

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But the same strategy has produced an unusual situation in which public discontent hasn’t translated into meaningful pressure on Bush to consider changes.

Despite the unease over Bush’s approach, support hasn’t coalesced for any alternative, partly because no one has systematically presented one to the public. Bush’s poll numbers are weakening, but his control over the choices in Iraq isn’t.

“You can only play the game of letting Bush debate with himself for so long,” complains Eli Pariser, executive director of the political action committee associated with the online liberal group MoveOn.org. “In a political sense, having Bush alone on the stage may help, but in the sense of actually resolving this problem, I don’t see that it does.”

Pariser’s solution is the plan from Reps. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) that would require Bush to begin withdrawing troops by October 2006. Pariser’s conviction, widely shared on the left, is that unless Iraq’s majority Shiites realize they won’t have the U.S. military behind them indefinitely, they won’t negotiate a durable power-sharing agreement with the Sunni minority.

That might be wishful thinking: With or without U.S. troops, the ethnic strains in Iraq may justify comparisons to Bosnia for years.

But America needs to hear Congress and the president seriously evaluating alternatives such as this, or Kristol’s answer of more troops, or last week’s proposal from Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) to withdraw all troops by 2007. The war seems to be on autopilot, with leaders of both parties refusing to ask the questions Americans are asking one another every day.

Silence in Washington doesn’t support the troops. A debate that exposes the nation to the available alternatives, and that compels the administration and Congress to rethink what America can achieve in Iraq and what price it is willing to pay -- that would support the troops.

Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at latimes.com/brownstein.

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