The membership of the Democratic Party is overwhelmingly opposed to the Iraq war. So why has the party nominated a man who supports the war even more enthusiastically than George Bush does?
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on July 16, well after he had secured the nomination, John Kerry said he hoped that by "the end of my first term," the U.S. will have "reduced the number [of troops in Iraq] significantly." (Earlier this week, he said he might aim for some reductions within the first six months of taking office.) In the meantime, he intends to get more help from other governments, and, the Journal reported, "consult with military commanders to determine how many more troops might be needed to make Iraq more secure."
For the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq, he said in the interview, three conditions must be met: Iraq must be "stable"; "the outlook for the stability to hold" must be good; and we must be assured that Iraq's armed forces can provide "security sufficient for the government to stand on its own."
Until these conditions are met, he said, "I will provide for the world's need not to have a failed state in Iraq." He then accused Bush of being less resolute about continuing the effort in Iraq and, as a "political move," possibly withdrawing troops before the election.
The conditions that Kerry insists upon before ending the Iraq conflict are far more stringent than any set by Bush. And until withdrawal, he is likely to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. In short, Kerry is even more committed to the war than Bush.
To underscore his support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Kerry told reporters on Aug. 9 that he would "have voted for the authority" for the war even if he had known that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction and that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks on America.
The last time the U.S. was bogged down in an unpopular war was in the late 1960s. The quagmire in Vietnam is largely mirrored by events today in Iraq. But there is a massive difference.
In 1968, the president who got the nation into Vietnam was forced to end his re-election campaign after faring poorly in several of his party's primaries. Forces loyal to Lyndon Johnson managed to capture the presidential nomination for his vice president, but it was plain that voters had done something unprecedented: They had repudiated the war by denying an incumbent president a chance to run for another term.
Meanwhile, the opposition party nominated for president a man who promised somehow to get out of the war with dignity (a process that ultimately took several years and cost many lives) and to end the draft.
This year, as in 1968, there is ample public opposition to the war. Most Democrats have voiced opposition, as have some conservative Republicans. For the first time ever, a documentary movie has become a major hit — and that documentary is a propaganda blast against the war.
Opposition to the war is not quite as well-developed this year as in 1968, mostly because the U.S. is in only the second year of its futile attempt to "rebuild" Iraq, as opposed to 1968, when it was in its third year of planting social democracy in Southeast Asia. So it's not surprising that the incumbent president will easily retain his party's nomination.
But the Democrats' nomination of a strong supporter of the war is harder to explain. The only plausible reason is that they oppose Bush much more than they oppose the war. Witness the "anybody but Bush" chanted, mantra-like, at Democratic conventions and caucuses from coast to coast. For ordinary voters and ordinary party members, this mantra also means "end the war" or perhaps simply "I hate Bush." But for party regulars and bureaucrats it means something far different: Winning the presidency is necessary for Democrats to get jobs and power in the federal government.
For these people, uniting behind a single candidate early in the campaign was critical. A contentious battle for the nomination would use up much of their money. A consensus quickly developed that they would coalesce behind whichever candidate pulled out to a significant lead, no matter what his stands on the issues were. The media have proclaimed that Iowa's caucuses in January are the first major venue for candidates, and when Kerry won the caucuses, these party regulars all jumped to support him.
That is how, after decades of reform of the nominating process, the Democrats allowed their nominee to be determined by a handful of self-selected people from Iowa, a smallish, sometimes Republican state whose voters are atypical in many ways.
And it is how the American voters have been denied an opportunity to express their doubts about the war, unless they are among the tiny minority that is willing to vote for fringe-party candidates.
R.W. Bradford is editor of Liberty, a monthly magazine on culture and politics written from a classical liberal (libertarian) perspective. He is based in Port Townsend.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company