Somebody needs to write the sequel to John Kennedy's "Profiles In Courage". Let's call it "Profiles In Cowardice". I know a really, really good case study for Chapter One.
Kennedy's original book told the stories of senators who stood up to great political and social pressure, taking the courageous stands their hearts required. I always thought the point was perhaps a bit too well taken, given that we are talking here about legislators casting votes and thereby generally only risking their present careers - not soldiers at the front, or Gentiles hiding Jews from the Nazis. But it does take some real fortitude sometimes to be the lonely voice of sanity when everyone around you has completely flipped. Perhaps that is why we hardly see it happen anymore, ever since the sad day Paul Wellstone's plane went down (high marks to Russ Feingold and Robert Byrd, though.)
It's one thing not to be terribly courageous, and quite another to indulge in the worst imaginable cowardice, with the worst possible repercussions for other people's lives. There's a lot of room in between for your garden-variety member of Congress to attend fund-raisers, provide "access" to corporate lobbyists, and march in hometown Fourth of July parades, all without doing too horribly much damage to the country they're meant to be serving.
This week, however, the leadership of the Democratic Party wrote Chapter One of "Profiles In Cowardice". Of course, that wasn't entirely a surprise. Most Democrats bought into this war, along with the rest of Bushism, from the very beginning. It turns out that this gang of mealy-mouthed nothing-burgers really is the party of effete Quislings that Republicans make them out to be. At a time of moral, constitutional, international, governmental, political and environmental crisis, the Democrats have taken a firm stand on the issue of trying not to offend anybody in America. And, of course, getting themselves reelected.
At least you can't say that they have no principles. And at least you can't say that they're inconsistent. They never fail to fail. And they never disappoint while disappointing.
But what marks out the most recent act of shame is the sheer egregiousness of it. In 2002, Karl Rove arranged a congressional vote on the Iraq war resolution right before midterm elections. That alone was the height of political cynicism on his part, showing that nothing was beyond politicizing by the Bush administration. It was only one year after 9/11 (which history may yet show to itself have been the greatest act of political cynicism ever, or ever imaginable), Bush was riding high, people were scared, war seemed to many like an appropriate policy, and an Iraq marketing campaign of which Madison Avenue must have been in awe was in full swing. There was no excuse, even under such circumstances, for Democrats like Clinton, Edwards and the rest to vote for the war. Yet, you could at least understand why they did. You could partially excuse them if you were so inclined (I wasn't), precisely because of the outrageousness of the situation they were placed in by regressive forces inside and out of the White House. Heck, you could even argue that they were fulfilling their role as faithful representatives of their constituents' will, even as they were abdicating their responsibilities as leaders of those same citizens.
But this... This there is no excuse for. Not now, not ever. This is precisely the inverse of the situation in 2002, which makes it mind-boggling to contemplate just what would be required for Harry Reid to close the sale here. Just what is necessary for the Democratic leadership to acquire the political courage for doing what was the morally correct thing from the very beginning?
Do they need to wait until opposing the continuation of the war represents a popular opinion in America? Evidently not, since whopping majorities now believe that the war was based on lies, that it is making America less secure - not more - and that it is time to end it.
Do they need a mandate from the public? If the election of 2006 wasn't that, then what was it? If the public didn't send Democrats to Congress to supervise and clean-up after the GOP, then why did they? It certainly wasn't because of the great mass appeal of the Democratic legislative agenda, assuming anyone could have figured out what it was.
Do they need a majority in Congress? You'd never know from watching them in action that they actually had one! Could you imagine New Gingrich or Tom DeLay laying down like this?
Do they need a position that is reasonable and patriotic? Only because of the complete and utter incompetence of the Democrats at articulating their policies (assuming they have any) and a sheer lack of moral courage has it come to pass in contemporary American discourse that voting more funds for Iraq is somehow equated with 'supporting the troops'. If someone bought a first-class bus ticket to ship their child off in style for a visit with a pedophile, would we call that responsible parenting? Why can't Democrats simply say, over and over again, that they are supporting our troops by removing them from the disastrous abattoir to which this heartless president consigned them for purposes of satisfying his own psychological inadequacies and his own pursuit of power? How is it that voting appropriations for the sole purpose of withdrawing the troops could be portrayed as not supporting them?
Do Democrats need to be in the driver's seat in a legislative standoff? They were never more so. Imagine a game of chicken where one driver who doesn't care whether he wins or loses, whether he wins or dies. Who do you think is going to bail out first? In situations like we saw last week, there is a huge disadvantage accruing to anyone going into the contest needing something more than his adversary. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer remarked that "Neither side can do something without the other. Democrats cannot adopt a policy without the president vetoing it ... and the president cannot ignore the Congress as he did in the first six years" of his presidency. Hoyer (or is it Whoyer?) is right about that, but he has forgotten the more important part of the political calculus, the part concerning the stakes involved. It's as though he were analyzing a poker game without considering the pot, and whose money was in it.
Bush desperately needed this bill. No more money, no more war. Congress did not. That means that the Democrats should have simply kept sending him the money, with their conditions attached, and let him continue to veto it. It was a perfectly viable strategy, and for once the conditions were all in their favor. Bush could not have kept vetoing war funding legislation with a popular provision attached to end the deployment while plausibly arguing that Democrats were not supporting the troops. This would have been particularly true if the Democrats had stood up every once in a while and explained themselves to an American public already sympathetic to their position. They could have turned the White House public relations strategy right on its head, and they even had the help of reality to assist them in doing so. All they had to do was say "We keep sending him the money, and he keeps rejecting it. We call on him now to sign this crucial legislation necessary to fund our troops in the field". They could also have further painted him as petulant, arrogant, intransigent and childish (who, George W. Bush? - imagine that!) for being willing to sign only his particular version of the funding bill. How hard a sell would that be?
But maybe what the Democrats needed, finally, was an adversary who folds when pressed. Was that the problem? The truth is that is exactly what Bush is, as the Wolfowitz affair demonstrated again, and as has been shown often enough before, perhaps most notably in the UN Security Council when he yanked his DOA Iraq invasion resolution just days after the bluff in which he promised there would be a vote no matter what. This guy is the ultimate coward acting the part of the playground bully. Stand up to him and he collapses. How many of Bush's eight years have to go by before Democrats learn to stop flinching? Granted, Iraq is different, and at first appearances would seem to be the one thing the Bush camp would never negotiate. But, let's face it, the truth is that Bush is just waiting for another president to hand the war off to so that he can delude himself into believing that he didn't lose it. If that's the mentality, he might even secretly welcome a congressional funding cut-off to get it over with earlier rather than later, and still have someone else to blame.
So it's beyond astonishing, really, if you think about it. Democrats had a morally correct and absolutely defensible position, even in terms of the whole supporting-the-troops mantra. They had popular support and a public mandate to act. They had majorities given to them for that precise purpose. And they had an adversary who needed the legislation far more than they did, and who has a history of bullying when allowed, but folding when pressed.
I'm wondering if I could have written a better prescription for success, given a blank piece of paper. Does Nancy Pelosi have to become president following a double impeachment for Democrats to end this war? And is there any reason to believe that a President Pelosi would actually do that? In one of the most amazing acts of political duplicity this side of Karl Rove, Pelosi claimed "I'm not likely to vote for something that doesn't have a timetable or a goal", which, of course this bill did not. I hate to be the skunk at the garden party, but Hey Nancy, aren't you the Speaker of the House? Do you really expect us to believe that you didn't actually engineer this bill wearing your Speaker hat, just because you later cast a single vote against it wearing your just-one-of-435-members-of-the-House hat?
The mind fairly reels looking for historical analogies in which defeat has been so flagrantly rescued from the jaws of victory. Indeed, you pretty much have to make one up. Keith Olbermann sees this as a Munich moment, with the Democrats playing the role of the ill-fated Neville Chamberlain. Much as I applaud his work as nearly the only voice of sanity on television, I think Olbermann is unintentionally too generous this time out. He has the right analogue, but the wrong analogy. For Chamberlain, however foolish he was later proven to be, at least thought he was getting something very big - nothing less than "peace for our time" - in exchange for those slices of Czechoslovakia he gave to Hitler (even if, of course, they weren't his to give away). And so did a lot of other people. At the time, Chamberlain was a hero.
But the Democrats don't even rise up to Chamberlain's ultimate historical fate, that of being a naive appeaser who profoundly and tragically misunderstood his adversary. For they understand George Bush all too well. And what did they bring home in exchange for continuing to fund a war whose nature they equally well understand? The answer is nothing, save for their own humiliation. This was a total capitulation. It is as if Chamberlain had gone to Munich and given away not just the Sudetenland, but all of Europe.
But even that analogy doesn't do justice to the magnitude of the crime, for the hand Chamberlain was playing was not a particularly strong one. To really understand what Harry and Nancy have wrought, one must look to the end of World War II, not its origins. Imagine it is May of 1945, and the greatest disaster in human history is coming to a close. Nearly fifty million people have been consumed by the unsurpassed brutality of World War II, and whole continents lie smoking in ruin. The Allies, having fought brutal battles for every inch of progress, have succeeded in marching the German army back from Stalingrad and Moscow and El Alamein and Sicily and Normandy, all the way to the gates of Berlin. One more push and it's all over. But then, somehow, through some monstrous act of cowardice, through some monumental failure of judgment, what if they just decided to call it quits, and let Hitler and his regime go on? What if their two massive armies of the East and the West, facing only children and broken old men as remnants of the once vaunted Wermacht, decided not to finish the job but instead parked in the suburbs of Berlin, waiting to see what would happen next?
The Democrats could not possibly be more deluded about what they've done, and that is the most charitable definition. Far more likely is that they've simply learned well at the School of Rove, and believe they can fool the public too, just like the Big Liars. Harry Reid dropped jaws all across America when he exclaimed, "I don't think there's any way you can stretch what we've done in this supplemental as a defeat. Look how far we've come. ... Nobody can say with any veracity that we haven't made progress. Even with the Warner language, the president is conceding to 18 benchmarks and two reporting requirements."
Wow! Eighteen benchmarks, huh? Really? Say, Harry, that is impressive. But - Shhhh! - make sure you don't tell 'em the rest of the story. Don't mention that you stripped all troop withdrawal timetables from the bill, which, of course, was always the central point of contention. Don't tell people that you removed any language that required the proper training and resting of troops before they're deployed. In the name of supporting them, of course. Don't mention that the benchmarks (whoa!) and the reporting requirements (dang!) apply to the $6 billion going to the Iraqi 'government', not to the $100 billion you're sending to Caligula as fuel to feed his Mesopotamian holocaust. And, of course, whatever you do, never tell the public anything about that "Warner language" you mentioned, which makes even these already pathetically anemic and irrelevant benchmarks subject to the Emperor's waiver, anyhow, any time, at his whim.
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No, Dude. Like you said, nobody can stretch what you've done here as a defeat. That's because it massively and transparently is one, already. Who needs to stretch? Here's what happened: You sat down to play poker with the president, all cards face up. You had a straight flush, he had nothing, seven high. He anted up a nickel. You folded. He won. You're cowering in the suburbs of Berlin, losing a political war that has already been won (no thanks to you), over a real war that was long ago lost.
This puts Americans in a real quandary. Somebody once said: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Interestingly, it wasn't Karl Marx or even Jane Fonda. It was Jack Kennedy. I think he meant it as a warning for the reactionary right of his time, who could only envision more and more militarism as the sum total of US policy in Latin America. Today, it reads to me like an entirely apt warning for us here at home. And why shouldn't it, discouraging as the comparison may be, given that this president has been busy turning America into a banana republic?
What choices remain for Americans today? They have an administration which they despise, enacting policies they loathe. So they did what the good citizens of a democracy are supposed to do, they went out in large numbers and voted in a new government. We should make no mistake about what the landslide election of 2006 meant. Democrats had no agenda to put forth and were not chosen for the purpose of advancing any such non-agenda. They had one qualification going into last November's contest, and it was the one which got them elected: They were the non-Republicans, the non-regressives. Their singular mandate was to curb the excesses of the insane kleptocracy which, by all manner of nefarious techniques, had seized control of the American democracy and was taking every step imaginable to destroy it.
So what did the Democrats do? They immediately put impeachment off the table. We should understand clearly what that meant. By doing this, the Democratic leadership was saying that no matter what crimes might be uncovered, their sense of political expediency in serving their own personal interests would come before those of the country they were paid to be serving instead.
Next, they have demonstrated the depth of their impotence by refusing to impeach Alberto Gonzales, despite the fact that his transgressions - which now manifestly also include perjury and obstruction of justice - are as obvious as they are deep, and despite that these crimes involve the Justice Department, a part of the federal government that is supposed to be most insulated from Rove style politics. Instead of impeachment we're to be treated to a Senate vote of no confidence. Golly, that's bold. Knowing that nice man in the White House as I do, I'm sure that will compel him to do the right thing about this darned vexing situation!
What's most astonishing about the whole affair is that Democrats still haven't awakened to the fact that the core thrust of the entire scandal was yet another scheme to steal elections from them. Why don't they just get it over with and form the Caspar Milquetoast Society for the Slow Suicide of Superfluous Political Parties? Just as in the case of the elections of 2000 and 2004, these guys don't even put up a fight when it comes to the one issue you'd think even such self-serving sycophants might actually care about, namely, keeping their jobs.
It's absurd and it's tragic that the Democrats will not touch Bush, Cheney or Gonzales, but this week's caving on funding for the Iraq war is in a league by itself. When they took over Congress, these guys had just one thing they needed to get right. They didn't. They had a moral responsibility to end a war which they've long known, and which Harry Reid has even publicly admitted, is lost. They wouldn't. They had virtually all the right political conditions in their favor, from a public mandate to a despised president for a political opponent. Still, they couldn't.
Democrats now own this war as never before. They were already massively complicit. Many of them voted for it when any fool with the slightest bit of reasoning power could see that it made no sense and that the Bush junta was lying with every word they spoke. They were silent again when the O'Neill and Clarke memoirs, along with the Downing Street Memos, turned those obvious lies into proven facts. And now, when they had every opportunity to do what they know to be right and even what the public wants them to do, they have secured affirmatively their spot in what Dante aptly described as "The hottest places in hell ... reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality".
A thousand Americans have been murdered by their own government over the last year in Iraq. God only knows how many tens of thousands of faceless, nameless (to us) Iraqis are on that list. The funding bill which the Democratic Congress just passed will purchase thousands more needless deaths. How in the world do these people sleep at night? How do they manage to confront the monsters who stare back at them in the mirror each morning?
Thinking and feeling Americans are at an impasse. They know unequivocally that the Bush administration is an utter disaster, a complete wreck of the ship of state. Yet for once in a very long time, it seemed that there was indeed more than a dime's worth of difference between the two parties in American politics. While the Democrats may not have stood for anything, perhaps they could finally be trusted to stand against the worst crimes of the regressive right. Alas, that hope now seems as ephemeral as the Democrats are effete. And so, locked in the conundrum that JFK so succinctly described, only the prospects of third parties or street actions seem to remain as viable options for stopping the madness. But neither of these seem terribly promising. The truth is that both depend, ultimately, on a body politic which is fed-up. This one is not, or at least not yet.
There are massive reasons to feel despondent today, and I do. But there are also reasons to have hope - which I also do - and it is crucial not to lose sight of those.
It seems to me that three grand historical lessons have emerged from the Iraq war, two of them hopeful in nature. The one that is not is that presidents and prime ministers - no less than kings before them - can still engage in the sport of war, especially if they play the game wisely. Learning from the Vietnam experience, the American government employed fear, media cooptation and control, tax cuts, a 'volunteer' military and nearly an equal number of private mercenaries in order to almost completely insulate all but a fraction of the American people from the effects of the war. It worked. As one casualty of his government's indifference - Robert Acosta, who sacrificed his legs and right hand in Iraq, and had to resort to duct tape to hold his prosthesis together when the VA couldn't get the job done - put it: "People would just come up to me and say, 'How'd you lose your arm?' And I'd say, 'In the war.' And they would be like, 'What war?'"
So the first lesson is that, if you're smart and cynical (the very description of Karl Rove, no less than Joseph Goebbels), you can still get away with a lot, at least in the short term. And imagine if the Iraq adventure had been the cakewalk that the administration believed it would be. Bush would still be a big hero, and Social Security would be a Wall Street piñata.
But perhaps the second lesson is that the short term is one thing, and the long term is another. If you're gonna do another Iraq, you better do it fast, because support won't last under trying conditions, no matter how scared and insulated you've rendered the public. This is encouraging to see. This is social learning in progress. If we look at how long it took the American public to wise up to Vietnam and compare it to their relatively quicker apprehension of Iraq, even in the wake of 9/11 trauma, there is some reason for hope.
Likewise there is reason for hope in our third lesson, which appears to be shaping up as something close to a law of modern history, suggesting that imperial-style invasions of the past just don't work anymore. It can be seriously discouraging to consider the military, economic and political power that a country like the United States can bring to bear on smaller states like Iran, Iraq, Chile or Cuba. But somehow you know there's some justice in the universe when you realize that invasions of those countries rarely succeed. Even the greatest military machines ever to bestride the planet can be humbled by stone age societies of pajama-clad guerrilla fighters, and in fact they almost always are. Vietnam, Algeria, Vietnam again, Afghanistan, Iraq - rare indeed are the occasions on which the heavily outgunned anti-colonialists fail to defeat invaders on foreign turf.
So there is still reason to be hopeful, even if the sheer bankruptcy of American politics has descended to new lows of yet deeper disappointment. The public will grow weary. The next president will end the war, or Congress, always two steps behind the people, will finally assert its prerogatives, just as it did - also far, far too late - over Vietnam. Bush will be gone and so will his war.
But last week marked a truly sad moment for America and the noble experiment in democracy begun two centuries ago. As the parades go by and the lawn chairs are refolded this Memorial Day, I cannot help but notice that default legitimacy in any discussion of national security policy still belongs to the government, and - worse yet - still belongs to the most militarist among us.
I long for the day when peace is the default position, tenaciously embraced by the American public. On that day, the lowest amongst us - the most frightened, cowardly and basest, the indulgers in the cheapest and most degrading political discourse - on that day these Bushes and Cheneys and Roves will have to move heaven and earth to detach us from our default common sense peacefulness. On that day, they will have to provide a mountain of evidence, and survive a withering interrogation by a real opposition party, an aggressive investigatory media, and a politically astute and engaged public before their war plans become policy. And on that day, they and their families will have to be the first in line to make sacrifices for any wars to which they beckon us.
We are not there yet, and last week's vote by the Democrats reminds us of just how far away we remain. But societies are subject to the learning process, just like individuals. (Of course, whether they actually learn or not is another question.) We won't be there next Memorial Day, either, but I suspect we'll be a fair bit closer. The direction of movement is positive, and one day our 'leaders' will follow the public far enough to approximate this default pacifism in our discourse and policymaking, much as the Europeans have now essentially done after singeing themselves one too many times on the white hot flames of war after fratricidal war.
There are few good things to take away from the disaster of the last six years, and perhaps little that could ever be justified by the enormous attendant costs. But I do believe that Americans have looked into the eye of the regressive movement and that most have come away horrified, now seeing it for what it is - a collection of the very worst amongst us.
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.