You can’t ignore the irony. Or is it hypocrisy? During a particularly symbolic week in which they renewed their high-profile pleas for Iraqis to bridge their political divides and help end hostilities, American politicians were at war.
The liberal MoveOn.org ran a New York Times ad attacking “General Betray Us,” Bill Richardson penned a Washington Post op-ed criticizing his Democratic rivals’ war policies, and Mitt Romney was forced to distance himself from “PhoneyFred.com,” a website devoted to mocking Fred Thompson. Reaction to testimony from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker fell largely along party lines; Hillary Clinton, for example, said Petraeus required lawmakers to practice a "willing suspension of disbelief."
It's sectarian violence, American style, hardly the picture of bipartisan comity that U.S. politicians are demanding from their Iraqi counterparts in order to end the war and hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Partisan bickering is, of course, hardly unique. In either country. Notably, however, the ankle-biting on this side of the Atlantic took place before, during and after the sixth anniversary of Sept. 11th, marking the first time since 2001 that, with few exceptions, pols declined to resist the pressures to attack each other, even for that one day, for political gain.
Perhaps no group misread the tone of the week -- or read it correctly, and disregarded it -- more so than MoveOn, whose “Betray Us” ad became a stark reminder of what can happen to parties when they fail to tend to their restless bases. Their move also reflected the confidence liberals feel today with their current clout within the party, so much so that they can force Democratic leaders onto the hot seat with little fear of overt retribution. Despite GOP pressure to distance themselves from the group and return campaign money, Democratic presidential candidates largely kept mum.
Republicans piled on, aiming most of their fire at Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner. Rudy Giuliani hyperbolically called the ad “one of the most disgusting things that has happened in American politics” and accused Clinton of spewing “political venom” at Petraeus in her remarks.
John McCain, campaigning in Iowa, had his own spin on Clinton’s comments. “It's a willing suspension of disbelief that Senator Clinton thinks she knows more than General Petraeus does about events on the ground in Iraq,” he said.
Liberals aren't alone in applying wartime pressure to their party’s mavericks. Conservatives who support President Bush’s war policy have been stirring tensions within the GOP, organizing primary challengers to three anti-war GOP members of Congress -- Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (who has since announced he'll retire in 2008).
Other ironies abound this week. During his questioning of Petraeus, for example, Barack Obama made a point of noting his “disappointment” that Petraeus and Crocker were scheduled to testify on this nation’s sacred day. “I have to say, and this hasn't been commented on, I think that we should not have had this discussion on 9/11 or 9/10 or 9/12. Because I think it perpetuates this notion that somehow the original decision to go into Iraq was directly related to the attacks on 9/11,” he said.
Fair enough; Obama also clearly viewed the notion of holding such a politically explosive debate on Sept. 11th as distasteful. But if Obama truly felt that way, I have to wonder, why did he travel to Iowa to deliver a major speech on the war in Iraq -- on Sept. 12th?
During that speech, Obama launched his own salvo at Clinton on two fronts, hitting her for authorizing the war in 2002 and her claims that voters should value Washington experience in this campaign. “I opposed this war from the beginning,” he said. “I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed it in 2003. I opposed it in 2004. I opposed it in 2005. I opposed it in 2006. … And I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now.”
He also took aim at the central argument against his candidacy, his lack of Washington experience. “Despite -- or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington -- too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions,” he said.
McCain, meanwhile, didn't even bother to take a break from the campaign trail on Sept. 11th, choosing instead to hold a rally in Iowa, where his campaign is still struggling. Undaunted, he defended his choice. “I can't think of a better way to remember and revere their memories and prevent further tragedies and attacks on the United States than to rally support for what Gen. Petraeus in his testimony today (said) was now the central battlefield in the war against terror, Iraq,” he said in Sioux City.
Well, at least he’s being honest.