The Democrats and Iraq

As war with Iraq looms bewilderingly larger this summer, it would be an overstatement to say that there's now a Peace Camp (or more precisely, an Anti-Invasion-Now Camp) in Washington. There sure as hell is a Privately Held Doubts Camp, however. People worry about the costs -- in lives, money and reputation -- that such a war would inflict on America; some even worry about the number of Iraqi casualties we would inflict. They worry about what would become of Iraq if we shuffle Saddam Hussein off this mortal coil; they worry that the administration doesn't even know what should happen if we do. They worry that the war would inflame an already enraged Arab and Muslim world; they worry that the war would drive a deeper rift between us and Europe; they worry that the administration really doesn't care if we estrange the rest of the world.

Some congressional heavyweights have begun to audibly express such concerns. Key Republicans -- such as Dick Armey, Chuck Hagel and Henry Hyde -- have wondered if we really have the grounds to go to war, and a number of Democratic senators -- Carl Levin, Barbara Boxer, John Kerry and Bob Graham -- have expressed similar misgivings. The most important Democrats, however -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden -- are staying discreetly mum, though there are days when Gephardt sounds distinctly hawkish. And it's these three leaders -- Daschle and Biden in particular -- who can set the Democrats' agenda and shape their talking points on the Iraq issue.

Biden has begun to hold hearings, which can be a good way to air questions that Democrats may have without having to commit themselves to a particular position. But so far, what most Democrats are saying is merely that the administration needs to make a case for going to war (a more compelling case than those that have emerged thus far through news leaks). They have not said what they'll do if that case doesn't measure up, nor are they saying why they think the administration will be able to make a better case than it's made thus far.

You can understand the calculations behind such reticence. No significant constituency is expressing alarm yet about U.S. military action. Biden's committee has yet to hear expert testimony that pokes holes in the administration's as yet unmade case. It's tricky opposing a war before the official case for that war emerges.

But there's another kind of calculation that Democrats -- their leaders in particular -- are making, and it's political. It's an entirely proper calculation for party leaders to make. The Democrats are suddenly staring at the prospect of a very good election year. This reversal of fortune is entirely the result of the corporate scandals, the market's fall, the president's miserable economic stewardship, his Harken troubles, his vice president's Halliburton troubles and his party's utter indenture to big business. When the dominant issue in the land was national security, however, Bush was riding high, and the Democrats opted to stay by his side in all things nondomestic.

So they backed the president's initial response to the al-Qaeda attacks, for good reasons that went well beyond the political. But the leadership's Velcro adherence to the president's military initiatives now extends far beyond Afghanistan. Democrats have said virtually nothing about Bush's stunning announcement that the United States is now free to wage preemptive -- if need be, nuclear -- war. And they still have said little about Iraq, which apparently is to be the object of our first preemptive war, though the administration has yet to specify what exactly we'd be preempting.

The choice now before discreetly doubting Democrats is a bit like the one that confronted the Democratic Congress of 1965–1966, when, at Lyndon Johnson's insistence, it enacted the Voting Rights Act and Medicare and, with Johnson, declared war on poverty. The opportunity to transform America was real, as was that little war in Vietnam, which in the course of the year grew into a big war. Some Democrats doubted the wisdom of that war, but most decided that with the prospects for fundamental social change so high, it was not the time to break with the president.

It was a difficult question for leaders of the left, too; some, such as the great civil-rights organizer and nonviolence advocate Bayard Rustin, decided that the opportunity to create a more egalitarian America eclipsed any imperative to oppose the war. "How does one judge a man like Bayard," his friend Michael Harrington later wrote, "who did the wrong thing for the right reason?"

That, I fear, is what people may be asking years from now of our congressional Democrats. The right reason this year may be nothing so fundamental as it was in 1965, but being able to block Bush's legislative initiatives and end the right-wing offensive of the past decade constitute genuine gains. And yet a war likely to have disastrous consequences in much of the world, a war that will let the terrifying genie of preemptive war out of the bottle, is being prepared. With ancestral voices prophesying war and all the polls pointing to victory, the Democrats' silence is understandable. But not excusable.

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