Make no mistake about it: The fight within the Democratic Party over the Iraq war is as important as it is real. This is no sideshow between seasoned Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and upstart challenger Ned Lamont, between pros and bloggers, or lefties and conservatives within the party.

No, this battle transcends those labels and cuts to the obligation of politicians to be honest with the public. Indeed, a seasoned conservative Democratic politician should recognize the war in Iraq for the unmitigated disaster it is and seek to properly place responsibility for it on the incumbent Republican president.

It is one thing for Democrats like Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to admit that they bought into the Bush administration’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuke program and partnership with Al Qaeda and to now seek to make amends by working to bring the troops home. It is quite another, as Lieberman has, to continue to defend as wise this patently absurd betrayal of the public interest. And it moves from dumb to evil to claim that those like Lamont who dare tell the truth are giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

“If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do — get out by a date certain — it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in England. It will strengthen them and they will strike again,” Lieberman said after his defeat in the Connecticut primary earlier this month, indicting not only his opponent but all those who voted for him.

In fact, Lieberman, along with the president and vice president, has become a full-blown McCarthyite smear artist, painting his political opponents with the tar brush of treason in an alleged apocalyptic battle for civilization.

“I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy,” said Lieberman on Aug. 10, an enemy “more evil or as evil as Nazism and probably more dangerous than the Soviet Communists we fought during the long Cold War.”

Such hyperbole is not only historically ridiculous — more evil than Adolf Hitler and his extermination camps? … more dangerous than the Soviets and their thousands of nukes? — it is a cynical attack on the free debate that is supposed to inform our nation’s leaders. The Lieberman-Cheney axis insists that not only are those who disagree with them traitorous or, at best, naive, but also that any and all military action conducted in the name of fighting terrorists is, by definition, good.

But what if the opposite were true? That, as Lamont and other critics of this quagmire argue, our clumsy presence in Iraq has increased the danger of Al Qaeda-style terrorism? After all, fundamentalist Al Qaeda did not have a base in Hussein’s secularized Iraq and has flourished there only since the United States brought chaos and American targets, many of them still teenagers, to Baghdad’s bloody streets.

Again, this is not really a “left” or “right” position. It is even conceded by the two leading national security experts associated with Lieberman and the centrist Democratic Leadership Council he helped found.

“The war in Iraq has proved to be a disaster for the struggle against Osama bin Laden,” Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack said in last Sunday’s Washington Post. “Fighters there are receiving training, building networks and becoming further radicalized — and the U.S. occupation is proving a dream recruiting tool for young Muslims worldwide.”

This is quite an admission coming from two Democratic hawks who vociferously supported the war: Pollack wrote the influential “Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” Back in April 2003, the two argued in the DLC’s magazine that democratizing Iraq would be made easier by the fact that “Iraq had perhaps the best educated, most secular, and most progressive population of all the Arab states” prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

So are they chastened by the mayhem? No, they want us to dig ourselves a deeper hole. “It probably would require 450,000 troops to quash an all-out civil war there,” they say now. “Such an effort would require a commitment of enormous military and economic resources, far in excess of what the United States has already put forth.”

And once we bankrupt ourselves to make Iraq a giant military prison camp, what will we do then? Find a new Hussein to take over Iraq? As Lamont wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week, staying the course when the car is headed off the cliff is hardly a realistic position.

E-mail Robert Scheer at [email protected].

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