Asking the tough questions

Worst case scenarios happen.

That is the lesson of President Bush's troop-lite war in Iraq, his attention-diverted war to crush al Qaeda and get Osama bin Laden, dead or alive.

That is the lesson we can only hope the president has finally learned. That is also the lesson we in the news media must finally learn as we go about our job of covering and questioning the politicians who are now running to be our next president.

Because we now know that worst case scenarios can and sometimes do happen — we must finally start demanding that Democratic and Republican presidential candidates publicly address the real-world consequences of their proposals, their congressional votes and even their campaign trail utterances about the war in Iraq and war on terror.

Especially in the presidential campaign debates, which are indeed very early but are now very important — because they are about decisions that the current president must make right now that will mean the difference between life or death, serious injury or security for hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians in Iraq. And — depending on how the next round of worst case terror scenarios turn out — potentially for millions of people in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

So far those in our craft who have been questioning the candidates have fallen short of fully serving the public interest by failing to press the candidates to face up to the real life-and-death consequences of what they are proposing. That is because it is sometimes hard for anyone to get a politician to go beyond his or her carefully crafted proposals and made-for-TV carrots-and-shticks. But also because too many of the journalists who twirl in the campaign window don't seem to try.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer came close the other night, as he was alternately strolling and patrolling, moderating and interrogating eight stationary Democrats who want to be president. It happened after all the Democrats except Joe Biden championed voting to cut off funds for the Iraq war — as a way of forcing the president to end the war.

Finally, Blitzer turned to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has urged action to halt the genocide in the Sudan, and asked him to apply the same moral standard to Iraq: "What if some of the …supporters of this war are right, and a unilateral, quick U.S. withdrawal from Iraq … does lead not only to an increased civil war but to genocide in Iraq? What moral responsibility does the United States have to deal with that scenario?" Richardson hopped on his debate bicycle, pedaling in all other directions. (Lotta time in the region, was United Nations ambassador, resolution for de-authorizing…)

"But what about genocide?" Blitzer interrupted. "What about the possibility of genocide?" Richardson tried to make it a Sudan question: "Obviously genocide is something — in Darfur — you know I have been involved in that issue. I believe what we need to do there is stop this genocide."

Blitzer soldiered on: "But what about Iraq, if it were, God forbid, to happen?" Now Richardson began bicycling around the region: "Well, obviously I would keep troops in Kuwait, where they are wanted. I would move them to Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda. But I believe that our troops have become a target. Our troops right now have done a magnificent job…."

Blitzer unilaterally withdrew, asking a new question of a new candidate. But what if the CNN anchor had held his high ground, insisting every candidate address the possibility of genocide in Iraq after the U.S. goes home — including America's moral and military obligation? We must demand that all advocating a troop pullout and funding cutoff publicly address what would happen because of that. Would smaller numbers of U.S. troops be more vulnerable, increasing death rates? Would Iraq become a new safe haven for al Qaeda? Will terrorists use Iraq as a base for new attacks in Europe? In America? If so, what will you do about it?

We must demand that all who favor staying the course (whatever that is) publicly confront the consequences: How will the war be won — and what if it cannot be won? How many more American deaths will occur? Will they have died in vain? Will they become targets for terrorists? Recruiting props for terrorists around the world — worsening the war on terror that was America's initial pursuit after 9/11? If so, what will you do about it?

Those who want to be president must be pressed to publicly face the real consequences of their plans and words — including the worst case scenarios they prefer not to see.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)