Of Power and Responsibility

What is it Spider-Man says? With great power comes great responsibility — or something on that exalted order, and something the Democrats will have to ponder in deciding how to talk about President Bush’s plan for a military "surge" in Iraq.

They’re talking, to be sure. How much pondering lies behind the talk is not easy to appraise. New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, told "Face the Nation" that "the burden is on the president to justify any additional resources for a mission."

To paraphrase a recent Democratic president, it depends on the meaning of "justify." Justify to whom? Congress? The nation? What would justification look like? Who’d sign off on it?

See, it’s the power thing. When somebody has it, all you have to do, in the interest of getting it yourself, is throw bricks and jibes and taunts. All you say is, I’d do it better. It’s what Madam Speaker is saying: her word against the president’s and, for that matter, against that of a senior Republican well-seasoned in military affairs, John McCain. Of the stakes involved in getting Iraq right, McCain said over the weekend: "Even greater than the costs incurred thus far and in the future are the catastrophic consequences that would ensue from our failure in Iraq." Failure meaning scads of people get killed because we walked away from an unfinished job.

That’s what the Democrats want? I don’t see it, and I have a feeling that Madam Speaker — for all her bumptious rhetoric — doesn’t want the Democrats tagged, as they were after the fall of Saigon, as the party that walked away from the screams and explosions. Which political strategy, I might add, didn’t work very well on that previous occasion.

There is an aching temptation, one that most of us feel occasionally, to let people with no more decency than to blow each other up go on doing so, but without us around. We are back to the great political philosopher Spider-Man: With great power comes great responsibility. The powerful don’t always get to do what they want to do — not while drawn tightly in a web of moral obligations and commitments.

It might not, but so also it might, turn out that the Democrats’ November victories were an important step on the way to American victory in Iraq. I know how dubious that sounds. Let me explain,

From outside the power structure, clamoring for admission, Democrats satisfied themselves by yammering at "liar Bush." (By the way, no Democrat I know of has ever explained satisfactorily what "liar Bush" lied about or what he thought was in it for him by going after WMDs he knew weren’t there.) Admitted now to the power structure, Democrats have to do more than yammer. They have to help devise realistic measures for winding up a commitment that few Americans of any political persuasion are happy we launched.

If the Democrats help instead of just throwing brickbats, we might actually end up with a better, because more responsible, Democratic party than existed as recently as November 2006. It would be a gain for us all, that’s for sure.

Americans didn’t in the past fear so much as we do now the turning over of temporary power to one party or the other. We might not like or trust one party or the other, but only occasionally did we assume that The Other Party was out to get us. You know, sort of like the Sunnis and the Shiites. Fine role models for us, if one may say so, and excellent reminders of the need somehow to bring the Iraqi mess to as satisfactory a conclusion as possible.  Saddam Hussein got his just desserts. His country has a democratically chosen, if often exasperating, government. Banditry and bombs don’t add up to civil war. The White House is moving at last — and likely for the last time — to settle things. If Madam Speaker has better ideas, she needs to start justifying them — to us all.