When historians look back at the Iraq war, they will divide it into the pre- and post-Murtha eras.
Before U.S. Rep. John Murtha called on Nov. 17 for an American troop withdrawal from Iraq within the next six months, the Bush administration turned a deaf ear to all war critics, implying that they were traitors. Since the hawkish Democrat from Pennsylvania spoke out, President Bush is extolling the need for "honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq." So what happened?
"The Murtha intervention was a critical one (because) he is so respected as a person," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "I would say it is a turning point."
The general is right.
Murtha's call released a torrent of pent-up doubts from Americans who were initially willing to support the war but want to know why things have gone sour. The congressman has made it legitimate to voice criticisms that would previously have been denounced as unpatriotic.
How Bush responds will determine whether and how long Americans are willing to stick it out in Iraq.
Murtha's treatment by the White House - before Nov. 17 - was typical of its response to critics. He is a decorated former Marine with close military ties and a strong congressional supporter of Pentagon budgets. Yet the administration stiffed his request for private discussions about Iraq. He got no reply for five months to a letter on Iraq that he sent the president. The reply he finally received was from a Pentagon flunky.
When Murtha finally went public, White House spokesman Scott McClellan accused him of endorsing "the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic Party."
Within days, however, the president was calling Murtha "a fine man" whose Iraq critique was done in a "careful and thoughtful way." Clearly someone in the White House finally grasped that they were smearing the wrong man.
Less clear is whether Bush understands what has changed in the post-Murtha era. The issue is not whether we should endorse Murtha's call to pull out "in as little as six months." I don't believe that's a good idea, nor do many other war critics. The issue is whether the president starts leveling with the American public about White House mistakes that produced the current Iraq mess, and the real options ahead.
In the post-Murtha era, the same old White House spin will backfire. Without admission of past errors, why should the public believe that the mistakes won't continue?
Bush officials may not have "lied" about prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, but they certainly "exaggerated," to use Murtha's term. Why pretend otherwise? Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney constantly hinted at non-existent ties between Sept. 11 and Saddam or suggested operative links between Saddam and al-Qaida for which there was no proof before, or after, the war.
If the blame for bad intel lies with the CIA, why did the president reward George Tenet with the Medal of Freedom? If there was no misuse of intel, why did Republicans stall a planned Senate investigation of that question for the last year?
More important, why hasn't the president held someone responsible for the lack of planning for postwar Iraq that created the current chaos? It was administration mistakes that enabled terrorists to set up a new front in Iraq after we invaded.
"They should have fired people," Murtha says firmly. He specified former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the Iraq war, who was instead rewarded with a cushy job as head of the World Bank. The congressman also listed the grievous errors of Donald Rumsfeld on NBC's "Meet the Press": The defense secretary failed to send enough forces to pacify postwar Iraq, failed to grasp that Turkey would not permit us to transit its territory to pacify Sunni areas, failed to equip reservists with the vital equipment they needed, and failed to supervise Abu Ghraib. Murtha echoes the military's anger at Rumsfeld.
If no one is held accountable for such blunders, how can Bush rally support for a continued Iraq presence? Especially when Rumsfeld continues to throw out meaningless figures about 212,000 trained Iraqi security forces? His own generals say that only one Iraqi battalion of fewer than 1,000 men is trained to fight fully on its own.
If the White House wants Americans to support a continued Iraq presence, it will have to absorb the Murtha message: Talk straight, come clean, hold people accountable, offer a clear plan for the future without misleading statistics. And stop insulting critics who point to mistakes that are apparent to everyone, regardless of White House denials.
As Murtha rightly said on "Meet the Press": "It's not (about) me. It's the public that's thirsting for an answer to this thing. They don't want a war of words. They want a solution." That's the post-Murtha challenge the White House must meet.