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Rolling Back History

Joe Lieberman's smears against the American left for not supporting the Iraq war fail to recognise the true record of the Democratic party

Michael Tomasky

Like a pestilential raccoon who keeps figuring out how to get into your garbage at night even after you've tied down the lids, Joe Lieberman emerges anew every so often to knock over liberals and remind us of his moral superiority.

This time he appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos on Sunday and sniffed:

"Well, I say that the Democratic party changed. The Democratic party today was not the party it was in 2000. It's not the Bill Clinton-Al Gore party, which was strong internationalists, strong on defence, pro-trade, pro-reform in our domestic government. It's been effectively taken over by a small group on the left of the party that is protectionist, isolationist and basically will - and very, very hyperpartisan. So it pains me."

Several bloggers have commented. Michael Scherer at Time says Holy Joe is full of buncombe. Reihan Salam, a talented conservative blogger, counters that liberals should be happy that Lieberman thinks this: "Correct me if I'm wrong," he writes, "but isn't [Lieberman's observation] a commonplace observation on the left - indeed, don't many liberals see this broad trend as a very good thing?" And Ross Douthat at the Atlantic, another talented conservative blogger, echoes Salam and adds that the American political middle often finds itself aggravated by too much enthusiasm on the extremes, either left or right.

Everyone has a point here, but no one quite gets to the heart of the matter, which is the fallacy (historical, philosophical, moral; you name it) at the heart of Lieberman's argument. When you get right down to it, Lieberman thinks the Democratic party is girly-mannish because its leaders and rank-and-file members did not and today do not support the Iraq war fully or strongly enough. And more, that today's Democrats are betraying their history, a history he specifically associates with Harry Truman and Jack Kennedy.

But Lieberman just doesn't know what he's talking about. Or worse, I think he knows exactly what he's talking about but is lying anyway.

There is nothing in the historical record - nothing - to suggest that Harry Truman or his major advisers would ever have supported something like a pre-emptive war against a country that wasn't a direct threat to the United States or to the west. Indeed there is a mountain of evidence suggesting the contrary. The neocons of the day, whose goal was not containment of communism (Truman's policy) but "rollback", as it was called, wanted Truman to move into China as the Korean war was wrapping up. Truman did not. There are quotes from him and from Dean Acheson, his secretary of state at the time, saying that the rollbackers were basically out of their gourds. They were tempting nuclear confrontation with "Red" China.

And there is certainly no evidence that the Truman administration would have ginned up intelligence and lied the country into war. The closest they came to something like this was the manner in which Acheson got Senate foreign relations committee chairman Arthur Vandenburg to sign on to the Truman Doctrine, based on Soviet threats to western positions in the Dardanelles. Acheson amped up the rhetoric all right ("clearer than truth" was the famous phrase), but he did not tell the American people a lie about the Soviet posture.

There is no doubt, though, that Lieberman participated in and, at the very least, led cheers for lies told to the American people. And is there much doubt that vis-à-vis China, Lieberman would have been a rollbacker? I think there's very little.

Kennedy is slightly more complicated case. In Cuba (at the Bay of Pigs), he did indeed undertake a pre-emptive action, although obviously on a far, far smaller scale than Iraq. And he meddled around in the Congo (now Zaire), although always in consultation -actual consultation, not fake Bush-administration style consultation - with Britain, France Belgium and the UN.

But of course those moves, especially the Bay of Pigs, were disasters, not something for Democrats today to emulate. And Kennedy, too, never undertook anything like the Iraq war. When the pressure was really on him, and several people around him were urging that he take the country into nuclear combat with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis (including an older Acheson, now a raving hardliner in his dotage), he resisted them.

What would Lieberman have advised Kennedy to do? We can't know.

But we do know this simple truth: Joe Lieberman is a neocon. What he urges and advocates with regard to foreign policy today has nothing whatsoever to do with the positive traditions of the Democratic party.

The canard that equates support for the Iraq war with "toughness" is a piece of intellectual casuistry and corruption without parallel in our times. And Lieberman, certainly more than any Democrat and possibly more than any other American politician save the president and Lieberman's inamorata John McCain, is at the core of it. He just cannot be allowed to keep saying it.

Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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