Choosing leaders from the war zone

International Herald Tribune

Choosing leaders from the war zone

John Kael Weston IHT July 23, 2004

BAGHDAD We write from Iraq, where the war is not over and the mission still
to be accomplished. Our group, Donkeys in the Desert (Democrats Abroad,
Iraq), is diverse and growing; members range from active and reserve
soldiers serving in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps to civilians working for
private contractors and the State Department

Individually, we wear many hats: interpreter, lieutenant colonel, force
protection, diplomat, sergeant, trade adviser, captain, fuel inventory
specialist and others. But it is as Democrats that we meet weekly and talk
politics, discuss non-partisan absentee voter outreach and, occasionally,
simply vent among the politically like-minded

Our group forms part of Democrats Abroad, a Democratic Party organization
that includes 70 other country committees worldwide, from Armenia to

Fellow Democrats will gather later this month to nominate John Kerry and
John Edwards to our party’s 2004 presidential ticket. It is unclear how much
of the Iraq debate will pervade Boston the last week of July – probably
some, but in our view, not enough. Given continued American and Iraqi deaths
framed by graphic violence, Iraq might be even further sidelined during the
Republican Party convention in August

Why? Iraq is divisive on both sides of the political aisle; party unity,
unsurprisingly, will instead be the theme on display throughout the
conventions. For a few days in late July and August, Iraq amnesia could
overtake Boston and New York City

We Donkeys are in Iraq because we chose to contribute concretely to U.S.
reconstruction efforts, largely putting aside personal politics. Our
presence here is fundamentally about American credibility – not lost, but
damaged – and our nation’s long-term national-security interests

Some of our members disagree strongly about how our country got here in the
first place, with limited substantive international support and alienated
allies, motivations driven by neoconservative ideology, and a reconstruction
plan undermined by stubborn missteps and poor planning

We are where we are, however, and understand the need to follow through
pragmatically with American commitments, especially those on such a grand
scale and with deep strategic implications globally

Iraq, this distant and dangerous place where we find ourselves, is all about
high stakes – for Iraq it self, the United States and our allies, the Middle
East region and beyond, for years to come

We write also as concerned Americans, a category that transcends our party
identification. The Iraq debate back home especially worries us. It is time
for less partisanship and more civility, more balance. The consequences of a
premature U.S. pull-out from Iraq (as advocated by some Democrats and, most
vocally, by Ralph Nader) would be disastrous. To claim otherwise is to
pursue an “exit strategy” not grounded in current realities. We know; we
are here

In the coming months, we will be mailing our absentee ballots to voting
districts across America – in Red, Blue and swing states. There is nothing
like serving in a war zone to focus attention on life priorities; exercising
the right to vote in a crucial presidential election constitutes a top one
in our minds right now

The Boston and New York conventions represent an opportunity to set high
expectations for both nominees from the outset. Sidestepping Iraq does not
constitute presidential behavior

The election of a new American president will bring opportunities to rebuild
torn alliances and restore a U.S. role where we lead by example and choose
to act together with friends in the international community

Regrettably, the multinational force in Iraq has so far failed to include
many of our closest allies, and the costs of Iraq’s reconstruction have
overwhelmingly fallen on the backs of the American taxpayer

Our ability to build a better Iraq is enhanced by broad international
support, which we presently lack in concrete terms. The Bush/Cheney
instinctive go-it-alone approach has frustrated this objective. Worse, the
administration’s policy has divided allies and put us at odds with friends

A four-year job extension for the current White House team would only lead
to more expressions of unilateralism (however repackaged or softened) and
will, we believe, make our efforts on the ground in Iraq more difficult and
less likely to succeed

Donkeys in the Desert will continue our own debates in places called
Baqubah, Falluja, Tadji and Baghdad. But we will feel better knowing that
similar discussions are being held in electronic chat rooms, homes, schools,
and civic centers in more familiar places, such as Albuquerque, Blue
Springs, Akron, Tallahassee and countless other towns and cities across

We trust the American people to get this critical presidential election
right. Our absentee ballots, sent from the deserts of Iraq, will soon enough
be on their way. We will do our part; Americans back home – we urge you to
do yours, by turning out in record numbers on November 2. Participate.
Question. Compare. Then vote, and set an example for Iraqis. It is the
democratic thing to do. And, in so doing, give us a new commander-in-chief

John Kael Weston is serving in Iraq as a civilian adviser to the 1st Marine
Expeditionary Force. This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe.