The "Stab in the Back" Trap
The "Stab in the Back" Trap
The Democrats and the peace movement are walking into a trap.The Republicans are preparing with Rovian cunning to focus the mind of the public on the question: Who lost Iraq?
And they are already giving the answer: The Democrats and the peace movement.
Republicans are preparing to dominate future decades of American politics by blaming the failure of the Iraq war on those who "sent a signal" that the U.S. would not "stay the course" whatever the cost. President Bush and Vice-President Cheney have already begun to project such a "stab in the back" myth. At a recent Republican luncheon, Vice-President Cheney told Senators that "What's most troubling" about Senator Harry Reid's recent comment that the war is lost "is his defeatism."
It's a weak reed right now. But it will be much more serious when Americans are forced to face the chaos and humiliation that will come with recognition that America is not only failing but that it has failed.
At the moment, a combination of war weariness and President Bush's unpopularity prevent such an argument from gaining much traction. As long as people are eager for the war to end, they will think of the Republican argument primarily as an obstacle to getting out.
But that will no longer protect the Democrats or the peace movement once the U.S. occupation is ended and the subsequent regional conflagration and defeat of American surrogates has begun. The Swiftboating machine will go into high gear to blame each new outrage on those in the U.S. who didn't give 100 percent support to the war.
Democrats in Congress instinctively recognize this danger. Many respond by promoting mild policies like benchmarks and non-binding timetables notwithstanding their constituents' demand for withdrawal. But the Republican strategy will cleverly ensnare even those who endorse such tepid measures, because it will blame defeat not only on an actual failure to provide material support for the troops, but on any "defeatist" who "sends a message to our enemies" that American domination will not be there forever.
The crucial problem is that most Democrats seem to be calling for withdrawal or "redeployment" not because the war is wrong, but merely because it is failing. By framing the war as lost because of mismanagement, poor planning, or being bogged down in a civil war, Democrats cede the argument that the war itself was a "noble cause." But if the war is right, if as Bush maintains it is necessary to prevent horrendous consequences, then the public will predictably blame those consequences on the "defeatists" who made America "cut and run."
What's necessary to evade this trap is to define the war itself - rather than just the fact that America is losing it - as wrong. It is wrong because we were lied into it by a rogue executive intent on launching an illegal war and occupation, in violation of national and international law, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N Charter. And it is wrong because it has imposed an illegal occupation that has systematically violated the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. War Crimes Act.
The means to define Bush's war for the American people are at hand in the power of Congress to investigate Executive branch actions. We are seeing that power being flexed in the use of subpoenas for documents and testimony by committees investigating the firing of U.S. attorneys. But so far investigation of illegal war, occupation, torture, and rendition has been pusillanimous at best.
What's become of the investigations of the origins and conduct of the war and occupation that Democrats promised when they took over Congress at the start of the 2007? According to a congressional aide quoted in the April 25 Washington Post, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have assigned staff members to monitor "what fights we're picking and how we're picking them." If so, they've assiduously avoided picking any fights that might implicate the Bush administration's "war on terror" in violations of U.S. and international law. (The first break in this complicity of congressional Democrats in the Bush administration's cover-up may be the 21 to 10 vote of Henry Waxman's House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to authorize a subpoena requiring Condoleezza Rice to testify about the yellowcake uranium fraud.)
Senate majority leader Harry Reid told the New York Times soon after last year's election that "the first order of business" when Democrats take over would be to reinvigorate Congressional scrutiny of the Executive branch, with a focus on Iraq. He told Bob Geiger, "We're going to find out how intelligence was manipulated, taking us to war. We have to look back to be able to look forward." Senator Jay Rockefeller promised to complete the Senate Intelligence Committee's stalled investigation of the political misuse of intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War. What's happened to this "first order of business"?
Senator Carl Levin said he planed to investigate "extraordinary rendition." In the meantime, European governments have produced extensive documentation on the subject, and CIA officers are currently being tried in absentia in Italy for a kidnapping on the streets of Milan. Why has no administration official been forced to testify and supply documents about extraordinary rendition?
Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, "The photographs and reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere that have emerged during the past two years depict an interrogation and detention system operating contrary to U.S. law and the Geneva Conventions." The American people deserve "detailed and accurate information about the role of the Bush Administration in developing the interrogation policies and practices that have engendered such deep criticism and concern at home and around the world." Where are the subpoenas for that information?
The Democrats can safely discredit the Bush administration by investigating scandals that illustrate corruption while leaving a criminal "national security" policy and its institutions unscathed. This is highly reminiscent of their strategy in the Watergate impeachment, when crimes like burglary were prosecuted but charges for far greater crimes like the secret, illegal, and deadly bombing of Cambodia were blocked.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, Democrats and the peace movement were smeared for "losing Vietnam." This campaign was largely successful because the public was never given a full picture of the real purposes of the war and the full machinations of those who fomented it. As a result, their anger could be turned against those blamed for losing it, rather than those responsible for starting and perpetuating it. That's why the lessons of Vietnam were never learned - and why simply blaming Bush for defeat in Iraq, rather than educating the public about the real meaning of the war, will lay the groundwork for more Iraq-type wars in the future.
There's plenty of evidence for the criminal violation of national and international law and the U.S. Constitution by the architects of the Iraq war. But so far this evidence is not being presented to the American people by their representatives. As long as the American people hear that the only thing wrong with the war is that we're losing it, Democrats and the peace movement will be vulnerable to the Rovian trap.
Many progressive members of Congress head committees that can begin serious investigations of those crimes at any time, but they're being "monitored" by Pelosi and Reid. Fortunately, Democratic leaders in Congress are unusually eager right now to curry favor with the peace movement. They should be told loud and clear: Unleash your committees to reveal the truth about the war to the American people. Otherwise, you'll be shot because you were the messenger who brought the bad news of American defeat.
Jeremy Brecher is a historian whose books include Strike!, Globalization from Below, and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt). He has received five regional Emmy Awards for his documentary film work. He is a co-founder of WarCrimesWatch.org.
Brendan Smith is a legal analyst whose books include Globalization From Below and, with Jeremy Brecher and Jill Cutler, of In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan). He is current co-director of Global Labor Strategies and UCLA Law School's Globalization and Labor Standards Project, and has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and a broad range of unions and grassroots groups. His commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, CBS News.com, YahooNews and the Baltimore Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.