Thursday, January 18, 2007

We are making progress...although things have become heartbreakingly bad (Part One of the Lieberman Project)

The third and final debate among the candidates for U.S. Senate was mercifully nearing a conclusion. The debate had been disrupted on multiple occasions by an exceedingly demonstrative audience consisting of vocal Lamont and Lieberman partisans and a small gaggle of Larouchies prone to periodically erupting into song. As the debate proceeded moderator George Stephanopoulos increasingly bore the mildly panicked look of a parent attempting to preside over their six-year old’s birthday party.

In the weeks preceding the third debate the polls, which had been wildly divergent throughout September, showing Lieberman’s lead ranging anywhere from two to seventeen points, had converged around an eight to twelve point lead for Lieberman (polling results that projected the final tally on November 7th fairly accurately). There was palpable concern in the Lamont campaign that their earnest but novice candidate was not succeeding in making the connection in the public’s mind between the burgeoning catastrophe in Iraq and Lieberman’s support for Bush Administration policies.

As the candidates convened on Oct. 23rd at the modest, small town auditorium in New London, U.S. fatalities in Iraq for the month of October had already exceeded the number of fatalities for any full calendar month during the preceding year. By the end of the month the 106 U.S. fatalities in Iraq in October would represent the most devastating monthly toll in American lives since the grievous losses suffered during the annihilative assault on Fallujah in April 2004. Increasing sectarian violence in Iraq and spiraling U.S. fatalities might have been expected to exert a substantial drag on the campaign of an incumbent who had been so vociferous in his support of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policies. Lieberman, however, had been effective (at least during the general election campaign) in parrying the Iraq issue, generally avoiding acknowledgments of the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Iraq and even on occasion taking the offensive on the Iraq issue by assailing “immediate withdrawal,” Lieberman’s preferred mischaracterization of Lamont’s support for phased redeployment.

However, with all due regard for Lieberman’s artful rhetorical veronicas on the subject of Iraq, his success over the course of three debates in blunting the impact of the Iraq issue was due in no small part to the apparent reluctance of Lamont and the debate panelists to confront the incumbent with specific examples of his prior assessments of conditions in Iraq, assessments that by October 2006 had proved so wildly optimistic and so at variance with other contemporaneous accounts of conditions in Iraq that TIME Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware had famously suggested after reading a Nov. 29, 2005 op-ed by Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal that “Senator Lieberman is so divorced from reality that he's completely lost the plot or he knows he's spinning a line.” Wasn't an assessment of the candidates prior pronouncements on the issue relevant in judging his current statements?

It wasn’t until the penultimate question of the third and final debate that Lieberman was confronted with one of his many previous errant Iraq assessments. Ted Mann, the political reporter for the New London daily newspaper that co-sponsored the debate, began his question by referring to Lieberman’s Wall Street Journal op-ed. Mann quoted Lieberman’s claim in the op-ed that “progress in Iraq is visible and practical”, and asked “given what the newspapers and television news shows have shown in the year since then I wonder if progress has disappeared anyway and is there anything we can do now to stop it?”

Lamont had been designated by Stephanopoulos as the first to respond to Mann’s question and he seized the opportunity presented by the reference to Lieberman’s op-ed. He began by noting (as he had at various times throughout the campaign) that Lieberman’s op-ed had been instrumental in inspiring him to run, and said he had considered Lieberman’s description of progress in Iraq as a “gross misreading of everything I’d heard was going on in Iraq.” He referred to Lieberman’s rather odd invocation of the presence of cell phones and satellite dishes in Iraq as indices of improvement, recalled that the op-ed had appeared at about the same time Rep. Murtha and various retired Generals had begun speaking out against the war, and contrasted their rejection of Bush Administration policies with what he referred to as Lieberman’s “stay the course” approach. He proceeded from criticism to criticism of the op-ed with a fluidity and assuredness that stood in stark contrast to his usual stiff and hurried delivery. It was unquestionably Lamont’s most impassioned and effective attack on Lieberman’s support for the war.

For the first time in nearly three hours of televised debate Lamont had succeeded in putting Lieberman on the defensive on the Iraq issue (he also may have struck a nerve with Lieberman, who could fairly trace the escalation of his internecine war with the leftwing of his own party to the WSJ op-ed). Lieberman began his response by pleading “what I wrote in the Wall Street Journal article is what I saw” during a visit to Iraq the preceding November. After explaining that he’d been encouraged by Iraqi elections, an Iraqi economy that was “coming alive”, and the purported success of a strategy of embedding U.S. troops in Iraqi military units, Lieberman made an uncharacteristic – and startling - concession of deterioration in conditions in Iraq: "Unfortunately, beginning in February, when the terrorists, al Qaeda in Iraq, blew up the holy Shiite mosque in Samara Iraq, and inflamed sectarian violence. Obviously, since then, particularly in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle, things have gone heartbreakingly bad.”

Lieberman’s admission that things had gone horribly wrong in Iraq since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samara the previous February was a stunning gaffe. It directly contradicted the assurances he had offered last July during his pre-primary debate with Lamont that things were going swimmingly in Iraq.

A more agile debater might have capitalized on Lieberman's gaffe by deviating from his prepared closing remarks in order to ask Lieberman how he could have proclaimed in July that the situation is Iraq was improving enough to begin withdrawals by year end if, as Lieberman now conceded, conditions in Iraq in July had been "heartbreakingly bad"? He might have asked Lieberman how he could continue to proclaim confidence that the U.S. would prevail in Iraq if a single act of terrorism could unleash sectarian violence so great as to completely overwhelm U.S. efforts to maintain order and stop a slaughter in Baghdad that had attained a horrifying monotony?

A more practiced polemicist might have noted that Baghdad had lapsed into an endless seizure of nihilism and terror in the eleven months since Lieberman’s WSJ op-ed, and yet Lieberman had persisted in advocating the same policies and strategies he had advocated a year before - embedding, “clear and hold”, static troop levels - strategies that since February had gone from merely ineffective to virtually irrelevant amid the chaos on the streets of Baghdad. He might have noted that under such circumstances the steadfastness of support for the war and its conduct claimed by Lieberman as a virtue was more nearly the opposite of virtue: less a commendable consistency than a complete absence of any will or inclination to react, suggesting inurement, or even indifference, to a metastasizing calamity in Baghdad rather than a courageous and principled stand against prevailing political winds.

Of course neither Lamont nor any other debater could have done more within the debate format than simply note Lieberman’s contradiction of himself and perhaps inquire of Lieberman whether anything could cause him to materially modify his Iraq policy if seven months of exploding violence in Iraq had not.

Anything, that is, other than the upcoming election itself.


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