- Cullman, Alabama


April 5, 2013

COMMENTARY: Who's to blame for our politics? Don't ask

There is a classic "Doonesbury" cartoon, published soon after the Vietnam War ended, in which the antiwar activist Mark Slackmeyer is arguing with his pro-war father. They go back and forth, each blaming the other's politics for everything that's wrong in Southeast Asia, when they finally reach the Cambodian genocide.

They stare at each other in perplexity until one mutters, "Whose fault did that turn out to be?"

That ironic bit of commentary came to mind as I read various accusatory accounts of Secretary of State John Kerry's recent visit to Baghdad, where he essentially begged — really, there is no other word — the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to halt the pipeline of arms from Iran to President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, a flow of weaponry that runs directly over Iraqi airspace. Maliki, for his part, promised to take the matter under advisement — although it is clear that, like Herman Melville's Bartleby, he would prefer not to.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, politicians and pundits have been doing what nowadays they seem to do best: placing blame. Politics ought to be about solving problems. Increasingly, however, U.S. politics consists of fault-finding, explaining to voters as well as readers and listeners where responsibility lies for whatever the current mess. We may not be able to fix many problems, but we sure know how to wash our hands of them.

Consider again the issue of Kerry's failed mission. There's a Republican narrative in which Maliki's intransigence stems from President Obama's decision to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in 2011. There's a Democratic narrative in which the problem is the 2003 invasion itself, either because it overthrew Saddam Hussein (who, for all his unquestioned cruelties, was a bulwark against Iran's ambitions) or because it led to the more general instability in the region.

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