As we approach the November midterm Congressional elections, most of official Washington has gone into recess. In the final weeks of campaigning, both the White House and the Congress have turned their attention from policy to politics. Those who take an idealistic view of the democratic process might hope that candidates for public office would address the critical issues confronting the nation and engage in a debate that could lead to a more enlightened response to our serious national challenges. Political realists will accept the fact that no serious debate will take place until elections are over.
We must recognize that the United States confronts unprecedented challenges to the future security of American society. Principal among these is the continuing struggle in Iraq. Sectarian violence has brought that nation to the brink of civil war, and it has made a mockery of the attempt through U.S. military force and diplomatic influence to develop a democratic society. If Iraq was not an important front in that campaign against terrorism before the U.S. invasion, it surely has become one three years later. The record of administration policy no longer inspires confidence. At this point we need a bipartisan policy that will honor our acquired commitments in Iraq but at the same time recognize the limits of U.S. military power and diplomatic influence. The blue ribbon committee co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton is a step in the right direction, but its report is not due until after the election, so it cannot set the terms for pre-election debate.
Even as leading Republicans like Baker and Senator John Warner of Virginia prepared the way for post-election shifts in Iraq policy, President George W. Bush admitted no mistakes. Most Democrats, for their part, instead of addressing the difficult decisions to be made about the future of Iraq, prefer to rehearse the past blunders of the administration. Few, among them Delaware’s Senator Joseph Biden, have offered alternative strategies for conduct of the war.
Instead both parties have been preoccupied with the scandal surrounding Mark Foley, the resigned Republican congressman from Florida, after the revelation of his salacious overtures to underage Congressional pages. For a time the apparent failure of the House leadership to act on early knowledge of Foley’s misdeeds threatened the tenure of Speaker Dennis Hastert. The issues involved in the Foley incident are serious and demand a full investigation and account of responsibility to the public, but they should not distract our political leaders from the less colorful but more difficult challenges our nation confronts at the present time.
North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon on Oct. 9 may shift the media focus away from the House page scandal and on to national security for the last month of the campaign season. Ordinarily conventional wisdom would suggest that a high-profile national security problem like North Korea would give an advantage to the Republicans; but, just as with Iraq, North Korea presents no easy options. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have ready answers. What the nation needs is an honest airing of the issues, including the failure of previous policies.
Congress undermined the agreement forged in 1994 by the Clinton administration, which would have provided food and energy assistance to North Korea in return for ending its nuclear weapons program, by its failure to fund American commitments under the treaty. The Bush administration’s steadfast insistence on six-party talks has sputtered along until the North Korean test brought it to a dead end. Given the risk to South Korea and the danger of nuclear terrorism, a military response seems out of the question. In most circumstances the unity of world opinion, including members of the Security Council, would offer some advantage; but to the Hermit Kingdom, world opinion matters little.
Public debate may not be the best way for the United States to hammer out its policy toward North Korea, but it may force candidates to level with the electorate, allow voters to assess the ability of candidates to address the wider question of nuclear proliferation and help refocus the attention of the new Congress. At its best, political life engages the issues of the public good. Surely responsible leaders in both parties can recognize the sad effects of the polarization that has too long divided the country. The distractions of this political season will pass, but the need for more enlightened bipartisan leadership, especially in national security policy, becomes more urgent with the passage of time.