As presidential candidates try to stake out an electable position on the war in Iraq, Americans are justified in wondering: Is it reality, or is it just politics?
Can anyone's judgment be trusted during an election cycle?
Some measure of comfort may be found in the dual reality that is Washington. What you see on TV isn't necessarily what you get away from the cameras. Off the set, honest discussions about Iraq and the war on terror have a different tone and content than one might expect based on the gibbering of talking heads. Even pundits are sometimes of a different mind off-camera than on. There's no underestimating the power of peer pressure in the green room.
Serious people, in fact, are increasingly concerned that our media-driven political environment makes honest debate impossible. Iraq has become a case in point.
Is bringing home the troops in our national security interest, or is it merely politically comfortable and expedient?
Behind closed doors, more-honest debates are taking place among Republicans and Democrats, led in part by members of the recently resurrected Committee on the Present Danger.
Its Tom Clancyish title is not far removed from its purpose, which is to strategically fight the bad guys -- through education and advocacy rather than espionage. Members include such familiar names as Sens. (and honorary co-chairs) Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and the co-chairs, former CIA Director James Woolsey and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Among international members are Jose Maria Aznar, former prime minister of Spain, and Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic. (For more information, go to fightingterror.org)
Originally formed in the 1950s as a bipartisan education and advocacy group to deal with Soviet expansionism, the committee was reorganized early this year to address the global threat of ``Islamist totalitarianism'' -- the committee's new name for our enemy.
Part of the committee's concern has been the Bush administration's failure both to adequately communicate our mission and to properly name the enemy. Our war is not against ``terror,'' but against a specific enemy -- a virulent, religion-based ideology.
Not all of Islam, we always hasten to add, but Islam as distorted and hijacked by radicals.
Although most of the committee's efforts will be focused on educating Congress, a broader goal is to break through the politically correct sensitivity about religion that prevents us from confronting the real enemy.
Lawrence Haas, vice president of policy for the committee, explains that we need to enhance recognition of this danger among members of both parties. ``But first and foremost, we need to make it acceptable and then respectable particularly for Democrats to talk about this problem.''
As Haas put it: ``We need to make Lieberman less lonely. And we need to expand the circle of Scoop Jackson Democrats.''
Haas, who served as director of communications for Vice President Al Gore and then for the Clinton Office of Management and Budget, is one of those Democrats mugged by reality on 9/11. Now a visiting senior fellow at Georgetown University's Government Affairs Institute, Haas says Americans are in denial about the present danger and that Congress is complicit in that denial.
Simply put, the present danger is a worldwide threat from radical Islamist terrorism that has a strong state sponsorship component, an overt and covert military component, and an ``insidious peaceful component" that is now present in the United States.
That is to say, peacefully and without much notice, Islamists are trying to use our laws of tolerance against us to carve out exceptions for themselves. The radical Islamist faction that has infiltrated and intimidated Europe has found a home in our polite denial.
The question is: Do we wait until, say, a documentary filmmaker critical of Islam is stabbed to death in the street -- as happened to Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh?
Or do we risk hurt feelings and start talking honestly now?
Haas and other committee members are betting on the ``now.'' Toward that end -- and behind closed doors -- Bernard Lewis, Princeton University historian of Islam and the Middle East, recently addressed a few dozen senators, House members and staff.
The hope is that as congressional leaders begin to feel less isolated, they'll become more comfortable being honest on-camera. Critical to those discussions is recognition that leaving Iraq is not an option.
``Whatever you thought before the war, it is now linked to the present danger,'' says Haas. ``We simply cannot walk away. We have to keep our eye on the ball.''
And, preferably, keep the ball out of our enemies' court.