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Ideas for Democrats?

It is not easy to be a professional Democrat in 2006. Out of power for six years and widely damned as out of intellectual steam, the party is regarded in nearly every political precinct and publication as a chronic invalid, doomed to obsolescence even though nearly all the stars are in alignment for a national rejection of all things Bush. When others aren’t kicking the Democrats, they are more than happy to kick themselves. The former Clinton hands Rahm Emanuel, now a hard-charging Democratic congressman from Illinois, and Bruce Reed, the president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, set the defensive tone of their election-year policy manifesto by quoting the Beckett-inflected soliloquy of Ross Perot’s ticket mate, Admiral James Stockdale, from the vice-presidential debate of 1992: “Who am I? Why am I here?” These days the Democrats would seem to have fewer answers to such existential questions than the sadly disoriented Stockdale did.

Since John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, pundits, Democratic politicians, consultants, bloggers from the “Netroots,” and outright quacks have been eager to fill that vacuum, offering often self-contradictory remedies for the party’s ailments. First came the religious cure: in desperate overreaction to a loaded exit poll suggesting that the Democrats’ 2004 showing might in part be due to a “moral values” deficit, party leaders sought out the liberal evangelical author Jim Wallis to learn how they might better make a public fetish of their faith.

Soon to follow was the marketing craze: George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, advised some of those same leaders on how to “frame” issues so that they, like the Republicans, might popularize hard-to-sell initiatives with their own versions of insidious circumlocutions such as “death tax” and “compassionate conservatism.” Other nostrums have included calls for banning pollsters and consultants that package candidates in focus-group-tested platitudes^1 and a return to talking about class issues^2.

If all else fails, there’s the default position of Clintonism, with or without Hillary Clinton, the putative 2008 presidential front-runner. A widespread fantasy has it that the freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama, everyone’s favorite un-Hillary, might yet be persuaded to throw off caution and run for president while he’s still hot rather than waiting until he’s “ready.” Or perhaps he could serve his apprenticeship on a ticket headed by the new, Hollywood-burnished, and, to many, improved Al Gore.

But whatever the merits of any of these miracle elixirs, the party, no more than Senator Clinton and other potential presidential candidates, still cannot escape the most troubling of the questions that confront it, the question that gets to the heart of “Who am I? Why am I here?” That question, posed by Gary Hart in his own election-year manifesto, is this:

What brought the great Democratic Party, the majority party for much of the twentieth century—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the party of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, the party that successfully led the nation through two world wars and much of the Cold War, the party of the New Deal and the Great Society, the party of great figures and instinctive visionaries, the party of civil rights and gender equality, the party that rescued America from the Great Depression, the party of the blue-collar working class and desperate Dust Bowl farmers, the party that provided the ladder of opportunity for generations of immigrants, the party of virtually all progressive movements for a century—what caused that great and historic political institution to cave in so quickly and so willingly to the most questionable military adventure since the invasion of the Philippines a generation before?

Neither holding public office nor planning to seek it, Hart has no qualms about addressing forthrightly the non-Republican elephant in the Democrats’ room. And the Washington Democrats will have to address it forthrightly too; the war and its aftershocks are not going away. In the campaign years of 2002 and 2004, the party hoped to finesse Iraq by either trying to change the subject to the economy or muddying the issue. Kerry, most memorably, was for the funding of the war before he was against it. Such indirection is untenable now; most polls show that Iraq is the most pressing issue to Americans, a drag on the nation’s sense of well-being (as much as 70 percent of the country feels it is on the wrong track) and a spreading threat not just to George W. Bush but also to Congress (which has a lower approval rating than the President does). Left unresolved, Hart’s question will continue to haunt the party, especially when it must field a national ticket in 2008. The Democrats are unlikely to be persuasive or coherent about national security or foreign policy—or perhaps to be listened to about much else—until they confront their own cave-in to Bush in his rush to war.

There could probably be no more representative illustration of this predicament than Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight. To his credit, Beinart is attempting to answer Hart’s question. As the former editor of The New Republic (he has since left that post to become a columnist for the magazine), he was a combative, at times shrill, voice of liberal hawkishness before the war. He has since, like many (nearly all) in his camp, had a change of heart. “I supported the war because I considered it the only remaining way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb,” he writes in his introduction.

I also believed it could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime, which might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East between secular autocrats and their theocratic opponents—a third way that offered the best long-term hope for protecting the United States.

Since there were no aspirations for building such a regime in the Bush White House—Donald Rumsfeld had reaffirmed the administration’s long-standing opposition to nation-building in a major speech a month prior to the invasion3—this rationalization, also a commonplace among neoconservatives, was wishful armchair punditry at its most fatuous. In any event Beinart now says that he was wrong on both counts and on the facts. “But even more important than the facts,” he adds, he was wrong on theory. “I was too quick to give up on containment, too quick to think time was on Saddam’s side.”

His flat-out admission of being “wrong” is refreshing as well as anomalous among former Iraq war enablers. Having bitten that bullet, Beinart, not unlike the Democratic Party, wants to move on. This is not as easy as he might wish. As with the other election-year blueprints for a Democratic future, Beinart bills The Good Fight as prescriptive. His subtitle is Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. But for a book that aspires to deal with the future, it is more often than not mired in the past. Much of The Good Fight is a good student’s rather pedantic recapitulation of cold war history (“The term totalitarianism originated in fascist Italy…”), as Beinart sifts through the Truman era and its New Frontier–Vietnam aftermath to arrive at a template for a liberal foreign policy that is both muscular in its opposition to real security threats and circumspect in its acknowledgment of American fallibility and the necessity of multilateral alliances.

Yet the other, far more recent past that shadows his argument is the capitulation of liberals like himself to the Bush Iraq project. This capitulation was far from universal; a majority of Democrats in the House voted against the authorization of the Iraq war, and so did twenty-one Democrats in the Senate. But those who did speed the rush to war included the party’s national standard-bearers (John Edwards as well as Kerry) and legislative leaders like the now departed Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt. For them and, as we see, for Beinart and the many writers like him, this original sin is not so easily exorcised.

It is a grim irony that this book’s central argument is one I myself ignored when it was needed most,” Beinart writes. That argument, as he sees it, is “that the morality of American power relies on the limits to American power.” But a grimmer irony, perhaps, is that the mea culpa that opens The Good Fight is mitigated by Beinart’s persistence in misrepresenting some of the history that preceded the American invasion. He still can be wrong on the facts. In revisiting the dubious arguments he so credulously swallowed before the war, Beinart writes:

It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened if the inspections had continued into the spring and summer of 2003. But most likely, the inspectors would have grown increasingly certain that Saddam had no nuclear program, and then, at some point Saddam would have kicked them out. Sooner or later, in other words, the United States would have needed a new containment strategy.

Such a new containment effort, Beinart adds, “could certainly have failed.”

It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened if inspections had continued, but Beinart’s “most likely” scenario wasn’t likely at all. When Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, publicly briefed the Security Council on March 7, 2003—twelve days before the American invasion began—he could not have been more explicit about the state of play. “No evidence of proscribed activities have so far been found,” Blix said. The Iraqi regime was abandoning conditions it had previously tried to impose on “the exercise of any of our inspection rights.” To complete the job, Blix concluded,

would not take years, nor weeks, but months. Neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever. However, it must be remembered that in accordance with the governing resolutions, a sustained inspection and monitoring system is to remain in place after verified disarmament to give confidence and to strike an alarm, if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programmes.4

In other words, after a circumscribed period of months, not years, inspections would have verified the truth: Saddam was bluffing and his WMDs had been almost entirely destroyed in 1991. Containment, which enjoyed the international support that a projected American invasion did not, was working. Had Saddam fulfilled Beinart’s hypothesis and tried to kick the inspectors out in the ensuing months, he would have been explicitly violating the governing resolutions’ requirement for sustained inspection and monitoring. Thus he would have handed the United States and its allies an unimpeachable, slam-dunk casus belli to go to war. (And that war, which might well have earned the same international support as the weapons’ inspections, would not have been the hasty, improvised fiasco that the Bush administration concocted.)

But that’s not a likely scenario either. The most likely scenario would have been, as Blix would say in 2005, “continued containment of Iraq rather than war,” enforced by continued international inspection of Saddam’s weapons capabilities. “It would have carried the modest cost of some $80 million/year and required only 200–300 UN staff. Saddam would have remained—perhaps like a Castro or a Khaddaffi.”5 That this scenario was prevented from unfolding was wholly due to the White House’s determination to fix the facts and intelligence around its determination to go to war and, to a lesser extent, to the intellectual and political cover this rash policy received from determined cheerleaders like Beinart.

  1. 3

    Rumsfeld’s speech, “Beyond Nation Building,” was delivered at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York on February 14, 2003. A complete text can be found at www.defenselink.mil/speeches/2003/sp20030214secdef 0023.html.

  2. 4

    Hans Blix, “Briefing of the Security Council, 7 March 2003: Oral introduction of the 12th quarterly report of UNMOVIC.” See Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq (Pantheon, 2004), p. 210, and also UN resolutions 687 (1991) and 1284 (1999). Resolution 1441 (2002) left the earlier provisions for a monitoring system intact.

  3. 5

    Blix, “Controlling Weapons of Mass Destruction—Lessons of Iraq,” The Margolis Lecture, May 5, 2005, UCI’s Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, Irvine, California.

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