IT'S NO SECRET that Democrats in Congress are badly divided on the Iraq war. Some, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, agree with President Bush that we should stay the course. Others, such as Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, believe that U.S. forces have already done what they were sent to do and should be withdrawn.
That leaves many other Democrats searching for principled middle ground. They are inclined to keep U.S. troops in Iraq long enough to help the Iraqi people find a political path away from their nascent civil war. Yet they have no confidence in the administration's capacity to manage policy effectively or in its willingness to conduct political debate honestly. That's why centrist Democrats in Congress should consider offering the administration a deal: For six months, they would give Bush continued support for funding and prosecuting the war, without demanding a specific date for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In exchange, the administration would have to provide radical improvements in the flow of information to the Congress and the American people. At the end of six months, Democrats would have to decide whether to renew the deal or call for a troop-withdrawal date.
Would this require Democrats to suspend criticism of administration misadventures in Iraq? No, but it would give the president six months when the Democratic leadership would not attempt to legislate an end to the war. While there is a chance for Iraqis to save themselves, Democrats who believe our presence could still make a difference would continue to support it. But they need something from the administration in return: real congressional oversight of national security policy.
Given that Congress is under Republican control, this means active cooperation from the White House in giving all lawmakers access to information about the state of the Iraq war. Committee rules would need to be altered so that Republican chairmen cannot abridge fact-finding by pounding their gavels. A special bipartisan commission on Iraq should be established to ensure that information is not just copious but balanced, as the Bush administration long ago forfeited its credibility as an honest messenger of bad news.
Assuming this bargain were made and kept, what standards could be used to measure progress? Certainly not the president's undefined standard of "victory," which gives him the role of sole interpreter of the facts. A much better set of standards was proposed by Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Among the criteria: Have the Iraqis establish a broad-based government? Is there a measurable increase of public confidence in security institutions? Has economic opportunity increased? And have Washington and Baghdad been able to round up more political support from Arab states and from Turkey? These are fair tests politicians of both parties could use to judge the merits of continued U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Making sound judgments about whether to continue the U.S. involvement in Iraq requires subordinating partisanship to the search for truth. This is what made the Sept. 11 commission work so well. But even the commission had its problems getting information out of the White House.
If the administration were to stonewall, then Democrats would have a choice. They could give the president a vote of confidence on the basis of his recent series of carefully staged speeches, delivered belatedly and under duress. Or they could join Murtha in calling for a U.S. exit from Iraq. For the next six months, though, it would be better for the country if Democrats proposed, and the administration supported, a suspension of disbelief in return for a moratorium on spin.