WASHINGTON -- This war has created grave consternation domestically and internationally about what underlies our engagement in Iraq. Is this a war in search of a message? Or was this a message in search of a war?
Hopefully, we are not so spooked by 9/11 that we have become intellectually disengaged and willingly unquestioning.
As we ponder this already deadly new century and as it ushers in what could be the real new world order, we have much to contemplate. Supporting our troops and our country is not a substitute for understanding why America is engaged and what are the bigger issues and implications.
We heard many shifting reasons from the Bush administration for the decision to take military action in Iraq now -- including Iraq's support of terrorism, the imperative of regime change, the issue of weapons of mass destruction and the importance of changing the broader Middle East political map.
All resonate, but all suffer from serious contradictions. Little had been offered to justify the urgency of this war's timing or realistic expectations during and after this conflict.
I emphasize realistic, because it was drilled into Americans by President Bush and his top officials that the Iraqi people would immediately welcome Americans as "liberators"; the regime and its supporters would collapse quickly; weapons of mass destruction would be used by Saddam Hussein, who has stockpiled them and made inspections a mockery; and some of our oldest recalcitrant allies (once we got rolling) would join with us "in the end."
None of the above has happened -- gratefully, in some cases -- but the question is why or what propelled this as the message? Mistakes or an administration political agenda for which Iraq was the first and longtime target? As things have unfolded, official bravado and backpedaling have not replaced needed insight.
While we don't want to Monday morning quarterback at a precarious time for our country, it is right to ask whether the administration's premises or planning have been faulty or whether actions are being taken for reasons different from those publicly articulated.
This has implications not just for now, but for the future. If expectations and context are muddied and no light is shed on an exceptionally tense and portentous global situation, then have we opened a global Pandora's box? And how do we deal with the consequences?
Whether we succeed or fail in Iraq, there are consequences far beyond that country's regime survival. We are rolling the global dice by energizing a new and highly volatile doctrine -- pre-emption -- with not so much as a hearing or debate before Congress or the public. Much noise, little light.
Mr. Bush has changed 50 years of U.S. international policy direction at the United Nations and with multilateral institutions almost by fiat and within a breathtakingly brief period.
While the Democratic Party may be befogged in terms of a clear message and voice providing little collective policy alternative, this is no excuse to dismiss or forgo informed discussion in the world's greatest democracy, especially as we weigh the global challenges ahead. We also depend on our press to help sort fact from fiction, and press embedding and eye-in-the-storm reporting from Iraq must never replace sober and clear-eyed journalism.
Much has changed in the conduct of our public life since 9/11. We may understandably fear for democratic governance and openness as we knew it before then, given changes in the name of security over the past 19 months. But official accountability cannot change. Support can be lost quickly in our democracy because our leaders are measured not just by their successes but by their credibility.
A frightened America ached for presidential leadership after 9/11. We have pretty much followed in lockstep since that date.
But accountability, trust of the people and public support are still the sine qua non of democratic governance. Without them, vision and faith in government "of, by and for" the people can rapidly deteriorate, even in the United States.
Jill A. Schuker is former special assistant for national security affairs to President Bill Clinton and senior director for public affairs at the National Security Council. She is a member of the Century Foundation's Homeland Security Project.