“The president misled us.” “Still no WMDs.” “If I had only known then what I do now…”
This is the intellectual level of Democratic wartime criticism about the Bush administration as we near the third Iraqi election–the one that will finally give faces to the first truly elected parliamentary government in the Arab world.
So what is behind this crying game at home–when we are so close to achieving our goals abroad?
Bad polls and far-worse casualties. With over 2,000 American dead in Iraq, the politicians think their own brilliant three-week war was ruined by George Bush’s 32-month failed reconstruction.
But the Democratic establishment’s anger is even more complicated than that since it is not yet quite sure of the mood of the fickle American people.
True, from the very beginning a small group of leftists has done its best to mischaracterize the effort to remove Saddam Hussein as some sort of Halliburton, “no-blood-for oil,” “Bush lied/thousands died,” “neocon” war “for Israel.” But despite the occasional auxiliary efforts of the elite press, until now there were really no takers in the mainstream Democratic party for the vehement antiwar crowd’s slander for at least three reasons.
One was the crazies. By that I mean that the Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Cindy Sheehan factions have a propensity to go lunatic and say or do anything–like shamefully praising the murdering terrorists who blow apart Iraqi women and children and U.S. soldiers as “Minutemen,” or calling the president of the United States “the world’s greatest terrorist.”
A sanctimonious Jimmy Carter may sit next to the buffoonish Michael Moore at the Democratic Convention in VIP seats, but the inclusion of his name with Rep. John Murtha’s is still apparently considered by liberals to be an outright slander. So up until now invoking Bush as a “liar” and our enemies as “heroes” was considered over the top.
Two, the Democratic left wing was wrong on the Cold War and mostly wrong on Gulf War I. With minorities in the Congress, fearful that they might never again be trusted on national security, and cognizant that both Bill Clinton’s campaign against Milosevic and George Bush’s war against the Taliban had been relatively cost-free, they outdid themselves in calling for invasion of Iraq.
Go back and read any of the statements of John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, or Jay Rockefeller about the dangers of Saddam Hussein and the need to take him out. Only then can you understand why the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly, with a strong Democratic majority, to authorize a war.
So up until now, Democrats had an embarrassing paper trail that in the era of Google searches made it hard to claim that the war was Bush’s alone and not their own. Indeed, as long as casualties were considered “tolerable” and the polls stable, most Democrats continued to talk in accordance with their own past votes and wanted to bask in the success of ending the Hussein nightmare.
Three, most Democrats knew the history of the George McGovern pullout campaign of 1972 that ended in disaster for the party at large. It just isn’t smart to lose American wars by cutting out–unless you have a Watergate for cover. Yet so far not outing a CIA employee who was not a covert agent does not make a scandal.
For all the media pizzazz about the peace candidate Howard Dean, the good Dr. had not a prayer of winning either the nomination or the presidency. Indeed, his tenure as chairman of the Democratic party has been a Republican godsend, since, like McGovern, he has the propensity in a single moment of heartfelt sincerity to scare the hell out of the American people.
Thus the savvy strategy as the casualties grew was to quibble, ankle-bite, and offer empty platitudes like “Get the U.N. back there,” “Get NATO in,” and “Get the Arab League on board,” rather than offering an ad hoc alternative plan of leaving Iraq in the style of Vietnam, Lebanon, or Mogadishu.
Two of those reservations have now vanished, as George Bush’s flight suit; the museum looting; Saddam’s public dental exam; the embalming of the Hussein boys; naked pictures from Abu Ghraib; a supposedly flushed Koran in Guantanamo Bay; rants on the Senate floor; the Scooter Libby indictment; comparisons of the U.S. military to Saddam Hussein; Nazi Germany; Stalin; and Pol Pot; the broadsides of Joe Wilson; Richard Clarke; General Anthony Zinni; Brent Scowcroft; Lawrence Wilkerson, et al.; lies that our soldiers targeted Western journalists; the meae culpae of prominent former war supporters from Francis Fukuyama to George Packer; white phosphorus; leaks about supposed CIA torture prisons abroad–along with mostly silence from the embattled administration and U.S. combat dead exceeding 2,000–have changed the political calculus.
So Democrats have overcome two caveats. First, they are beginning to sound like Michael Moore while distancing themselves from Michael Moore. Second, they have come up with a clever escape ploy from their own previous rhetoric. Yes, they voted for the war, but the intelligence they had was “not the same” as the president’s. And besides, they were merely senators who fund wars, while George Bush was the commander-in-chief who directs them. “He started it–not us” may be the stuff of errant boys on the playground, but it apparently offers a way out of past embarrassing speeches and votes. Even more clever, they now claim that voting “to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq” in October 2002 is not quite the same as actually authorizing a war in March 2003.
Consequently, the Democrats are now inching toward jettisoning their final reservation and embracing the Howard Dean cut-and-run position. Still, shrewd pros like a Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, or Chuck Schumer are not quite there yet for two other understandable worries. The polls say Americans are tired of the war, but not yet ready to quit and give up on all that has been achieved, leaving brave Iraqi reformers to ninth-century beheaders and suicide-murderers.
Second, these more astute Democrats are not sure that the Iraqi gambit might not work, especially with the December election coming up, the public trial of Saddam, the growth of the Iraqi security forces, and the changed attitudes in Europe, Jordan, and Lebanon. Many talk a lot about Vietnam circa 1967 but deep down and in silence most have mixed emotions about Saigon 1975.
For now Democrats stammer, sputter, and go the Bush shoulda / coulda route–not quite ready to take the McGovern sharp turn, forever waiting on polls and events on the ground in Iraq, always unsure whether peace and democracy will come before the 2,500th American fatality.
Yet as they hedge–on television praising Congressmen Murtha who advocates withdrawal, but making sure they vote overwhelmingly on the record to reject his advice–they should consider some critical questions.
First, are the metrics of this war in the terrorists’ or our favor? Are the Iraqi security forces growing or shrinking? Are elections postponed or on schedule? Are Europe, Jordan, Lebanon, and others more or less sympathetic to a war against Islamic terrorism in Iraq? Are bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Zarqawi more or less popular or secure after we removed Saddam? Is al Qaeda in a strengthened or weakened position? Is the Arab world more or less receptive to democracy in the Gulf, Egypt, Lebanon, and the West Bank? And is the United States more or less vulnerable to a terrorist attack as we go into our fifth year since September 11?
I ask those questions in all sincerity since the conventional wisdom–compared to the true wisdom and compassion of those valiantly fighting the terrorists under the most impossible of conditions–is that we are losing in Iraq, our enemies are emboldened, and the Arab world has turned against us. But if we forget the banality of New York Times columnists, the admonitions of NPR experts, and the daily rants of a Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, or Al Gore, more sober and street-smart Democrats are in fact not so sure of these answers.
So these wiser ones wait and hedge their wagers. They give full rein to the usefully idiotic and irresponsible in their midst, but make no move yet to undo what thousands of brave American soldiers have accomplished in Iraq.
What exactly is that? Despite acrimony at home, the politics of two national elections and a third on the horizon, and the slander of war crimes and incompetence, those on the battlefield of Iraq have almost pulled off the unthinkable–the restructuring of the politics of the Middle East in less than three years.
And for now that is still a strong hand to bet against.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.