Not enough attention has been paid, on the Iraq question, to the factor of universal access to information. For many years, in many wars, news reporters could not get near the front-line scene. And where high politics were concerned and dictators held sway, newsmen -- and foreign diplomats -- not only were stymied, they were deliberately misled. A report issuing from the foreign office in Berlin was often read, we know from postwar books and articles, as in a great game of tag: What do they want to make us think by handing out that bulletin about naval action in the North Sea?
Restraints on visiting newsmen nowadays are mostly composed with a view to security -- not of the United States or of Iraq, but of the newsmen. It is undoubtedly true that a reporter can't with total confidence walk down the main street of Baghdad. But it is almost certainly true that were he to do so, he would not come upon any evidence of U.S. or Iraqi deception. Of U.S.-Iraqi ignorance, yes. If we knew the location of every al-Qaida enclave, we have 10 times the firepower and the technology to uproot it.
Now this is a factor of critical importance in the days ahead, when the future of Iraq will be decided. We have in Washington an extraordinary political situation. The formal authority is in the hands of the executive branch, which is conducting the war, and the legislative branch. The jurisdictions are not always clear.
Yes, the executive could simply call off the war -- nobody would need to be importuned for permission to reach such a decision. And of course, Congress could appropriate the whole gold reserve and designate it for use in the war. But actually to do so would require the cooperation of the executive. That's where authority over the generals and the corporals and the bazookas resides.
The widening division hasn't anything to do with data officially withheld. It has entirely to do with analyses and extrapolations. The individual senators and representatives who will be voting on the critical questions in the days ahead aren't in any relevant sense better informed or worse informed than the White House.
Our gifted ambassador, Ryan Crocker, summarized it this way in his testimony to Congress: If we stay on, there is a fair chance of success. If we pull away, there is a certainty of chaos.
quot;Al-Qaida," Mr. Crocker reported, "overplayed its hand in al-Anbar, and Anbaris began to reject its excesses -- be they beheading schoolchildren or cutting off people's fingers as punishment for smoking." But Congress doesn't have to view life under al-Qaida to ingest the meaning of life under Saddam Hussein and his successors. The members of Congress, in judging the testimony of ambassador Crocker, will weigh it against what they know from their own experiences or from the writings of newsmen in whom they have confidence.
So this is not a case where Congress should defer to the executive on the grounds that the executive knows best. The executive here knows nothing that is not universally known. What matters, before the votes are cast, is relative assessments. Is Crocker correct in postulating that the departure of America from Iraq would mean the ascendancy of Iran in the region? And if that were to happen, how catastrophic would be the repercussions -- for Napa Valley, or New England?
Here Congress, using the judgment of its own members, needs to tax itself in order to vote not its conscience, exactly. To vote to sustain the huge effort we began in 2003 when the executive -- ambiguously encouraged by the legislature -- decided on war. Those members of Congress who, if they had it to do again, would vote as they did before could swell the ranks of the Libertarian Party.
U.S. elections are around the corner. And there are voters who are not persuaded by the analysis of Ambassador Crocker, or those of American newsmen. And this is of course the final branch of government: the voters. The critical questions in the halls of Congress: Will they understand if you do? And if you don't?
If the vote were mine, I'd say: Stick it out. You can't, by doing so, be accused of thoughtlessness, certainly not of perfidy.