The battlelines were carved into the Senate floor over a Democratic resolution condemning President Bush's war plans to send more troops to Iraq.
But it was hard to ignore the inconvenient truth that this ill-timed measure will aid the terrorists and depress the morale of our soldiers who are fighting to defeat them.
Democrats insisted last week that the resolution, a nonbinding statement that does not have the force of law, was needed to begin a long-overdue debate on the war, its direction and America's participation in it.
But Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Republican, wondered, as did others, what signal this debate and this resolution would send to the Iraqis government, its civilian population, and the terrorists who are bent on killing as many of them as they need to seize power and end the country's experiment in democracy.
"In an open democracy, we voice our agreements and disagreements in public, and we should not be reticent to do so. But official roll call votes carry a unique message," Lugar told the committee's members before they voted 12-9 largely along party lines for the resolution.
A vote for the measure that the Senate will begin debating this week "will confirm to our friends and allies that we are divided and in disarray," Lugar warned.
Indeed, if one were looking for contradictions, mixed messages and confusion within Democratic ranks about the war and what to do about it, they were easy to find last week.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of President Bush's staunchest allies in the war, pointed out that the senators were condemning the war in the Foreign Relations Committee at a time when the Armed Services panel was in the midst of making Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus a four-star general and wishing him "God speed" in his new and incredibly difficult job as the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Here we have one of the military's smartest leaders, who helped write the army's manual on counterinsurgency warfare, heading to Iraq to turn around a dismal situation that even Bush has described as a "slow failure." And the Senate is preparing to pass a resolution essentially saying that the war is a mistake and it would be a fool's errand to send in more troops to help stabilize the country long enough for the Iraqis army to take over.Rarely, if, in fact, ever in our history, has this country sent a war leader into battle while condemning the mission that he and the armed forces he will be leading have been asked to complete.
Looking for more confusion within Democratic ranks? Reread Virginia Sen. James Webb's response to Bush's State of the Union address. He called the war "reckless" and "mismanaged," but what would he do differently? Well, he said, we need a new direction, but "not a precipitous withdrawal." On the other hand, we need "a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."
"Webb's logic was as incoherent as his language (the two are often related)," former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote in Newsweek's website. "Fight the war vigorously -- except where the terrorists have chosen to fight it."
Threaded throughout the war debate was the argument that nothing good has come from the administration's decision to topple a war-making, dictatorial regime that promoted terrorism in all its forms across the Middle East, had gone to war against Iran, took over Kuwait, and then threatened Saudi Arabia. Vice President Cheney sought to put some semblance of balance into the debate last week in a combative interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer who saw nothing but "blunders and failures" in Iraq. Cheney would have none of it, saying the premise of Blitzer's question was "hogwash."
Yes we have "ongoing problems" in Iraq, but the bottom line is "we've had enormous successes," Cheney argued.
Certainly, that is true and needs to be added to the scales by which we measure what the war to overthrow a terrorist regime has achieved. Now we are engaged in a wider war against an insurgency that Gen. Petraeus and 21,500 additional troops are being sent in to quell.
The time for evaluating the success or failure of this endeavor will come soon enough, but now is not the time to be sending a message to friend and foe alike that we no longer believe in this mission. Someone should remind the Senate, when it begins its debate this week, that the additional troops Bush is sending in will also help save the lives of the soldiers who are already there.