Toward a More Civil Debate

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 31, President Bush called for greater civility in our public debates about national policy. Our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger, he said. While it may prove to be an elusive goal, a restoration of civility in our public debate could have important pragmatic consequences. At other times and on other issues, a more civil public debate has fostered the kind of bipartisan foreign policy that strengthened the leadership of the United States in the international community. Today, however, we are a nation sharply polarized on many issuesmost especially on issues of foreign policyand our attempts at leadership in the international community are more often resented than respected.

The pressures of the political season leading up to the 2006 elections, however, pose a formidable challenge to any hope of restoring civility in the nation’s public debate. Karl Rove, the single-minded strategist behind President Bush’s political success, has already defined the 2006 political campaign as a choice between the Republicans who understand the meaning of 9/11 and the Democrats who do not. Mr. Rove generously allowed that this did not mean that the Democrats were bad Americans but that they were simply wrong about the challenges of international terrorism after the terrorist attacks of 2001. The president, after calling for greater civility, insisted that the debate about U.S. policy in Iraq should not be preoccupied with hindsight and second-guessing.

While the conciliatory overtures of the President’s address were welcome, more troubling was his continued attempt to invoke the emotional legacy of 9/11 as justification for the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein may have been a monstrous dictator, but there is no evidence that Iraq played any role in the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. Yet in his State of the Union address, the president reminded his audience that On Sept. 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Was the president referring to Iraq, or Afghanistan, or possibly Saudi Arabia, the homeland of most of the 9/11 terrorists?

A few weeks before the State of the Union Address, the U.S. Catholic bishops, in a statement by Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on International Policy, anticipated the president’s call for a more responsible approach to the choices that now confront the United States in Iraq. Like President Bush, they called for a serious and civil national dialogue about the choices that confront the nation in Iraq, acknowledging both the mistakes that have been made and the signs of hope that have appeared.

While Democrats as well as Republicans accepted the Administration’s case for invading Iraq in 2003, the bishops’ conference did not, but warned against unforeseen consequences and questioned the morality of a pre-emptive military strike against Iraq. The history of the past three years has confirmed the bishops’ fears. No weapons of mass destruction were found; planning for the post-invasion occupation proved inadequate, and disastrous decisions were made; the reconstruction effort has been plagued by corruption and inefficiency. An honest appraisal of past history is essential to wise decisions about the future and cannot be dismissed as simply hindsight or second-guessing.

In moving toward a responsible transition in Iraq, the bishops underline the need for wider and deeper international support for the reconstruction of Iraq, which will require the United States to give its international partners and allies a real voice and real responsibilities. Like President Bush, the bishops call for greater civility in our national dialogue, but they also insist on the need to acknowledge past mistakes, failed intelligence and inadequate planning. The bishops echo Pope Benedict’s message for the World Day of Peace, In Truth, Peace, when they insist that our national dialogue must begin with a search for the truth’ of where we find ourselves in Iraq and not with a search for political advantage or justifications for past positions.

The bishops’ idea of the kind of national dialogue necessary at this moment in our history is probably not what Karl Rove or his Democratic adversaries seek for the political season of 2006. But it is the kind of debate this moment deserves, if we are to honor the sacrifices of U.S. military personnel and the aspirations of the Iraqi people. Greater civility in our public debate is not simply a nod to conventional etiquette. Rather, it demands acceptance of honest assessment of the past and critical analysis of failed policies. Civility is not the enemy of disagreement, but the condition under which disagreements can be seriously entertained and consensus reached in foreign policy.

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