“There is nothing this man won’t do. He is immune to shame. Move past all the nice posturing and get really down in there in him, you find absolutely nothing . . . nothing but an appetite.” –Jesse Jackson on Bill Clinton, 1992
Rarely has the intellectual rot of liberalism been more evident. Both at home and abroad, the honorable tradition of liberalism–and there is one–has been hollowed out by its own appetite for power and vengeance. Indeed, it is exceedingly difficult to see how liberalism, at the national level, stands for anything but appetite–undirected, inarticulate, unprincipled, ravenous appetite. Truly it has become Bill Clinton’s party.
Consider two stories of demonstrably unequal importance, which nonetheless have fascinated the chattering classes: The $20 billion request for Iraqi reconstruction, and the effort underway to create a successful liberal think tank.
Let’s start with the more important story. Today the “principled” position of the Democratic party’s leaders is to cavil and equivocate about the “need” to rebuild Iraq. I use quotation marks around “need” not because the necessity to get the job done isn’t there, but because America’s leading political liberals treat the very idea that we have to fix Iraq with winks and smirks.
Whether the war was necessary or not, reasonable people of all political persuasions outside the arena of partisan politics understand that the task of reconstructing Iraq is immensely necessary.
If the United States were to “bring the boys home” now, Iraq would implode, America would be seen as not merely a bully (which is not always bad, but rarely good) but also a bully with a glass jaw–which, as every thinking person must understand, would be an invitation to disaster of precisely the sort that left the World Trade Center in ruins.
Of course, except for the odd character actors at the left end of the screen in the Democratic presidential debates, the leading candidates do not say they are in favor of immediate withdrawal. Rather, they spew clouds of verbiage about why we need to have a “plan” and insist that until we have a “plan” we should not spend money on Iraq. Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, both of whom voted for the war, voted against spending any money on Iraq’s reconstruction because “we don’t have a plan” or because we “need a real plan.” Wesley Clark and Howard Dean–the Democratic frontrunners–also say that they would have voted against the reconstruction funds. Dean is consistent–and consistently wrong–in that his position has always been “if Bush is for it, I’m against it.” Clark, on the other hand, is not only inconsistent on the question whether he supports Bush, but it seems that this inconsistency is his only reliable trait. .
Even the noble exceptions of Gephardt and Lieberman–who voted for the reconstruction funds–often couch their answers in terms that show they want to be seen as close allies of the naysayers.
Of course, the administration does have a plan. And central to that plan is, well, spending money to rebuild Iraq. The Democrats make it sound like all the U.S. Army is doing in Iraq is having one giant-sized Chinese fire drill every day. One can just imagine John Kerry going to the local garage:
Kerry: I won’t pay you to fix my car until you have a plan.
Mechanic: Um, I do have a plan: You pay me. I replace the engine I just took out. Your car works. That’s the plan.
Kerry:How can you say you have a plan? Look at the terrible shape my car is in. It’s worse than before; there isn’t even an engine.
Mechanic: You’re an idiot.
In the current New Republic, Peter Beinart brilliantly excoriates Kerry and others for such arrogant and willful fecklessness, which, he argues, is the byproduct of mindless partisanship as well as the rising influence of political consultants. All of the top Democratic consultants have run polls, convened focus groups, disemboweled goats–and done whatever else constitutes the science of political augury these days–and concluded that Democratic candidates must draw “clear distinctions” between them and Bush. So, since Bush favors the reconstruction of Iraq–which means, as a practical matter, reluctantly favoring the expenditure of blood and treasure–the Democrats must be against it. By this logic, John Edwards should embrace Satan and start drinking heavily, since Bush is a born-again Christian and a teetotaler.
I’m only marginally kidding. For years, or decades, or even a century, we’ve been hearing a host of propositions from liberals. Crime and violence are symptoms of poverty. The United States must do more than simply drop bombs; it must alleviate the “root causes” of terrorism, hopelessness, etc. America must be internationally oriented, looking to engage the world and help the unfortunate. It is in America’s vital interests to come to the aid of the downtrodden. And, most recently and relevantly, America must get into the business of nation building.
All of these principles have been defenestrated by a party leadership who no longer believe what, during the Clinton years, it constantly claimed to believe: that partisanship should end at the water’s edge. Instead, even as we are fighting a guerilla war where the enemy defines victory not in military terms but in its ability to weaken American resolve at home, Democrats are crassly undermining the safety of our troops, the credibility of our nation, and the integrity of their own political philosophy. Every single good thing about liberalism in foreign policy would have the Democrats seeking more money for Iraq. Liberals should be the ones demanding that we send more teachers, more doctors, more librarians, and more troops to protect them. They should be standing on the tarmac helping to load another shipment of soft-ice-cream machines and ping-pong tables bound for Fallujah, Tikrit, and Basra.
And Democratic support for reconstruction isn’t required by liberal altruism alone; the good of the both the country and the liberal cause demand it as well. The only place where I think Beinart is wrong in his column is in his overzealous effort to be bipartisan in his criticisms. He asserts that Republicans opposed nation building in Haiti simply out of anti-Clinton pique. No doubt such animus played a role. But many conservatives simply did not believe that nation building in Haiti was anything more than what Charles Krauthammer calls “foreign policy as social work.” You simply cannot say the same thing about nation building (or state building) in Iraq. There are vital American interests at stake in the effort to make Iraq a stable, peaceful, and prosperous democracy. Offsetting our reliance on Saudi Arabia, advancing the spread of democracy and prosperity in a historically dangerous region, and–of course–quashing the threat of fanatical Islamic terrorism are all on the line here. Obviously these goals have altruistic components, but they can all be justified through hardheaded realism as well (which simply was not the case with Haiti).
But these Democrats want none of it. They see each setback in Iraq as a political opportunity to question whether we should be there at all. Not only do they send a message of weakening American resolve at precisely the wrong moment, not only do they abandon their historical principles, but they underscore their most enduring political handicap–the impression that Democrats are unserious on foreign policy. They are left with no principle to stand on, no plan of their own to promulgate, and no credibility to trade with. In short, they have ritualistically shorn themselves of everything but animus and appetite. Shame on them.
Coming next: Four Walls Do Not a Think Tank Make . . .