A Healthy Debate?

A Healthy Debate?


Dear Ari,

I was provoked enough by the title of your last post and your recent critiques of the Democrats to read onward, expecting some jabs at the hopelessly hobbled party that couldn’t even achieve unity on the feeble Levin-Reed amendment yesterday. Instead, I was surprised to find sanguine tributes to the party you recently accused of ducking and covering on the war. Now you applaud them for “openly struggl[ing] to find the right policy,” and you describe the rhetorical dodge ball the Democrats played this week as a “healthy debate.” Did I miss something?

As you yourself have argued, Democrats have hidden under the false pretense that the American public is divided on the war in order to avoid even broaching an anti-war platform. Yet as you note “voters in the country’s top 68 swing districts prefer a Democrat who supports bringing the troops home within a year over one who does not” and “72 percent of American forces serving in Iraq said last February that the US should leave within a year.” Never mind Bush’s dismal approval ratings and the consistent anti-war sentiment within the party’s rank and file, swing voters and our own troops want out of Iraq! Just how wide of an opening do the Democrats need?

That the party has now, apparently, dipped its toe into anti-war waters is hardly cause for cheerleading. Your post echoed The Nation‘s lead editorial this week applauding Nancy Pelosi’s newfound “outspoken opposition” to the war and the Democratic Party’s “election-year shift in the right direction.” Such praise strikes me as premature and unfounded. Can anyone actually make the case that the Democrats, as a party, have embraced an anti-war position? More the point — whatever this week’s votes symbolized — it is too little, too late.

In particular, I’m mystified by your characterization of the recent Democratic turn as an honest struggle towards the “right policy” prompted by a “healthy debate.” Are we watching and reading the same folks?

Here’s Hillary Clinton (who voted for Levin-Reed but against Kerry-Feingold) on withdrawal: “I do not think it is a smart strategy, either, for the President to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government…Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interests.” As Bob Scheer points out, “this is pure gibberish designed to sound reasonable.”

Or take Carl Levin, the designated party spokesman on the war: “Three and a half years into the conflict, we should tell the Iraqis that the American security blanket is not permanent.” Impending civil war. Mass violence. Lawlessness. Unemployment. Some “security blanket” the occupation has been.

Or re-read John Kerry’s famous op-ed in the NYT: “We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our valiant soldiers can’t bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq’s leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires.” “No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences.”

Kerry and Levin’s calls for withdrawal (whatever their differences on a timeline) essentially repeat the administration’s line that the war was motivated by salutary intentions, and in the final analysis they lay the blame for the “failure” in Iraq not on U.S. intervention — but on the Iraqi people. Even Pelosi’s framing of the war as a “mistake” and a “failure” dodges the real motives and effects of the occupation (and begs the question, if the US were winning the war, would it still be a mistake?) As Robert Dreyfuss points out today in a provocative article, the Iraq war is neither a mistake nor a failure. It is a deliberate and intended expansion of US hegemony that has largely succeeded. You may quibble with Dreyfuss’ analysis of the situation in Iraq, but his argument that the “mistake” and “failure” rhetoric “plays into the notion…that, although the war itself was a ‘mistake,’ the only rational option for the United States now is to win it anyway” certainly seems an apt description of the ultimate significance of this week’s so-called debate.

I’m not naive enough to suggest that a genuine anti-war, anti-imperialist platform from the Democrats would win elections. Indeed given how Republicans have closed ranks on the war, such honesty may result in a spectacular disaster come November (but so may so much dissembling). But let’s get real about what the party’s saying and hand over the pom-poms to the DNC.

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