by Matt Stoller, Thu Nov 24, 2005 at 07:23:25 AM EST
For instance, wonder boy Barack Obama just called for a partial withdrawal, party elders Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer disagree, and institutional Democrat Rahm Emmanuel is stuck in paralysis. Meanwhile, the 'stay the course' Bush administration seems to be dancing around the withdrawal issue as well while kind of denying it. And the Republicans at large are starting to push for withdrawal, under cover of blaming Democrats, which is the traditional stabbed in the back argument of any extreme right-wing movement whose base is a professional military-industrial establishment. While the right is separating from its leader, the Democratic leadership class is split from its base and the mainstream of America, a traditional principle-agent problem.
I'm very confused. And whenever I get confused, I try to dig into history. I wonder if in the comment thread you could dig there with me and analogize the time period we're in. You don't have to use an American example, or a modern one. I'm going to jump all over the place here, so bear with me.
One of the subtexts to the Democratic posture in Iraq is the first Gulf War, which is considered an unalloyed success. John Kerry, for instance, voted against the war, which in many ways wrecked his Presidential chances for 1992. Sam Nunn had the same experience. Bill Clinton, by contrast, never had a serious position on that war, and he went on from obscurity to the Presidency. He learned that wartime righteousness makes difficult politics when as a staffer in McGovern's campaign in 1972.
War is always weird politics. Andrew Jackson's slaughter of Indians made him a powerful independent General, and his victory over the British in New Orleans allowed him to conduct his own personal diplomacy and eventually destroy the Virginia Presidential dynasty. Wilson won reelection narrowly in 1916 under the slogan 'He kept us out of war' and claimed if you elect the opposition 'you elect war'. He then went on to become the most abrasive and dictatorial wartime President we've ever had - the ACLU was founded in its aftermath. Memories of the war and the 1918 flu kept Democrats from regaining the White House and Congress for ten years, and even then they did so only under enormous economic pressure. FDR didn't serve as a soldier in WWI, but that didn't matter politically because profiteering had made WWI irrelevant by the late 1920s.
Abraham Lincoln voted against Polk's war with Mexico, which caused him tremendous political suffering. A colleague who voted with him said"From now on, I'll vote for war, pestilence and famine." Lincoln and his peacenik brood even recruited war hero Zachary Taylor to run for President as a way of distancing themselves from their anti-war stance. Then of course he became the most important wartime President ever, even though he hadn't served in wartime. After the Civil War, the 'Bloody Shirt' cry from the Civil War to 1900 kept reams of veterans voting for the Republicans - pensions were granted to union soldiers and not confederates.
The Spanish American war is probably the most similar conflict to our situation with Iraq. With no obvious rationale, it was heartily opposed by William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat, while the ascendant Republican Party oversaw a tremendous victory during a time of extravagant warmongering journalism. It was begun under a ruse, with an accidental explosion of an American ship blamed on the Spaniards being the subtext. And a 20 year guerilla war in the Phillippines, with brutal behavior by American troops, was the result.
Which brings us back to Iraq. The first Gulf War gave Democrats whiplash. While considered a remarkable political and military success, it was fairly evident at the time that Bush Sr.'s failed diplomacy had in fact helped cause the war. The US had been supporting Iraq throughout the 1980s, and took a neutral position on Kuwaiti border security up until the invasion. But the cut and dry military victory, which was paid for by other countries, helped send Bush's approval ratings to the high 80s, and scared off Democrats like Maria Cuomo from challenging him (hence Bill Clinton emerged). There was a great skit on SNL, which showed various candidates competiting not to run against Bush (Cuomo bragged of his mob ties, for instance). In case history hadn't made the case that pro-war politicians tended to succeed, the first Gulf War was a nice reminder to our political leadership class, which is still largely in power. They were there. They faced the attack ads. They remember.
For Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and much of the 'strategic class', it was a seering episode and a confirmation that the right thing to do in foreign policy is rarely the politically smart thing to do. For much of the 20th century, after killing/assimilating Native Americans domestically, America granted itself exceptional status abroad. World War II and its immediate aftermath saw this attitude crystalize in its most munificent form, the other conflicts were less clear cut in moral and economic terms.
One of the reasons we're having such trouble with war politics is that we're in a new century, and both leadership groups are relying on old models. They have no effective framework to understand modern conflicts, and are attaching themselves to old and well-understood formulas. The Cold War. Saddam as Hitler. Terrorism as Naziism. Iraq as Vietnam. Iraq II as Iraq I. Anti-war as hippy.
So help me out. What works? Where has anti-war politics been good politics? The last time we had a real choice in foreign policy was in 1972, where we had one person - McGovern - as overtly anti-war, and another - Nixon - with a 'secret plan' for victory. America chose the easy path instead of the right one. I'm not sure if we're at a similar kind of crossroads, but it's pretty clear that the challenges we're facing, global warming, energy depletion, and globalization, are different in kind if not degree from what we've faced before. So what kind of political model works to transition us away from isolationist nationalism to progressive internationalism? I realize it's not an entirely coherent question, but if you sense what I'm getting at, and have a historical example that seems relevant, let it fly below. Why does voting for peace today feel so right, even though there isn't a case in the last 50 years where it has in fact been the political smart thing to do?