In defense of ‘political disharmony’

IN DEFENSE OF ‘POLITICAL DISHARMONY’….It looks like the column of the day actually ran yesterday, with David Ignatius’ piece in the Washington Post about the state of America’s readiness for another possible terrorist attack. Ignatius’ column believes we should all be more united. Behind who or what? Well, that’s the tricky part.

[In the event of an attack,] Liberals would blame the Bush administration for making America a more vulnerable target. Didn’t the war in Iraq inflame Muslim terrorists around the world? Wouldn’t we have been safer today if we had focused on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan rather than embarking on a costly war that has sapped the military and CIA and added to America’s enemies? These arguments aren’t imaginary: We hear them every day, almost as rehearsals for the post-attack finger-pointing.

And how would conservatives respond? They would blame liberals, who, in their view, have weakened America’s anti-terrorism defenses. Couldn’t we have stopped the bombers if critics hadn’t exposed the National Security Agency’s secret wiretapping program? Wouldn’t aggressive CIA interrogation techniques have yielded more intelligence that might have prevented the tragedy? Didn’t congressional demands to withdraw from Iraq embolden the terrorists? I can hear the voices on talk radio and cable news right now.

Ignatius added that our divisions are so deep, we are not “politically healthy.” We had a shared sense of purpose after 9/11, but it has “totally…dissipated.”

I suppose some of this is true, as far as it goes. Americans have substantive policy disagreements about national security and foreign policy. The past several years have, thanks to an intentional strategy, driven people apart. Ignatius’ description of what the arguments would be in the event of another attack is probably right.

But Ignatius leaves out the important parts. What should Americans with sincere disagreements do? Ignatius doesn’t say. He simply wants the nation to “get serious, and to get ready.”

It all sounds very nice, except for the details, which in this case are non-existent. As Ignatius describes it, Americans simply need to get unified. Unified behind what? Behind unity.

I don’t doubt that Ignatius means well, but his argument is lazy and hard to take seriously. It’s easy to urge Americans to get together; it’s a challenge to lay out an agenda for them to rally behind. It’s simple to tell people to stop arguing; it’s hard to talk about solutions. The column reads like Broderism at its least persuasive.

Ignatius’ column sings the virtues of national unity as if policy differences were inherently petty and parochial. They’re not. Those arguments he attributes to the left and right are indicative of a serious disagreement about the direction of the country. His Post column seems to suggest that the debates simply end so that we can all get together, arm in arm, against our common foes.

But that’s not “politically healthy.” As Atrios put it:

It’s an interesting phenomenon with people who spend much of their lives in the Beltway that they forget that disagreement is at the root of politics. It isn’t a flaw. People have genuine disagreements about stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s no virtue in everyone agreeing about everything, even if they all happen to agree with David Ignatius. It’s frightening, not delightful, when people blindly line up to support their nominal leaders.

Ignatius believes we’re not prepared for the “next attack.” I’m very much inclined to agree. If he wants to perhaps talk about what we should do about this in his next column, I’ll be sure to take it seriously.