Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Illogic of Non-Withdrawal

According to the New York Times, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are in a tizzy because their party’s candidates for President are out of line with their efforts to negotiate a war-funding bill with George W Bush. All they want is to be left in peace to voice opposition to the war while funding it. But now two of the three top tier candidates are ahead of them: John Edwards wants them not to cave in to Bush on deadlines; Hillary Clinton wants to rescind authorization for the war. What Barack Obama wants, nobody knows. [By espousing “new ideas” without saying what they are, his candidacy increasingly resembles Gary Hart’s two decades ago, but without the “Monkey Business.” On Edwards’ and Clinton’s proposals, see the entries for May 3 and May 4 below.] The Democratic leadership has a problem that the candidates don’t: they have to keep their “blue dog” (more right wing than most) Democrats on board without disconcerting the rest of their fold. Part of the problem is the inevitable time lag. When the Clintonites Schumer and Emanuel went out looking for candidates to run in Senate and House races, it hadn’t yet dawned that, by November of 2006, almost anybody who was not a Republican and who was running in any but the most solid of Republican districts would win. This is more true today. Clinton herself knows it. But that’s only part of the story. The larger problem for the leadership in the Senate and the House is that, in Congress, money rules. Candidates too have their donors to toady to but, in the end, their strength, early in a primary campaign, is how responsive they are to voters’ wishes. This is why they can afford, for now, to ignore the forces pulling Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to the right.

Even so, they’re not that far ahead. Edwards is not quite for defunding the war, though his proposal could have that consequence. Clinton certainly is not on board for defunding the war, though her proposal adeptly obfuscates her view. How can they justify their positions? How can the Democratic leaders in Congress justify the even worse position they will end by promoting? Leaving aside the Bush talking point about how the war should be managed by generals “in the field,” not by “politicians in Washington DC,” a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, the more articulate remnants of the formerly self-confident War Party claim that the war’s “opponents” in Congress -- the ones who want to continue to fund the war, though only for a fixed period of time -- are “intellectually incoherent.” They are absolutely right: it makes no sense to be against a war and then to fund it. But even the incoherent have (unsound) arguments. The Democrats have at least four. Two are peculiar to their party; two they share with the War Party generally.

All four arguments make a mistake that is so obvious that I’ll only state it once: that while they would rule out defunding the war now, defunding it later (even if “later” just means a few months from now) is just fine. Unless these Democrats are prepared to argue that something, they know not what, will happen between now and “later” that somehow changes everything, their position is nonsense. It warrants no further discussion. Their arguments against immediate withdrawal (or, equivalently, against defunding the war now) are not much better. But it is instructive to see where they go wrong.


1) At all costs, the Democratic Party must not appear “soft on defense.” To defund the war outright would violate this inviolable requirement.

COMMENT: Let the immorality of this argument be noted: it puts winning elections above doing the right thing. However, its main problem is its plain speciousness. That the Democrats must not seem soft on defense has been an axiom of Democratic Party strategy at least since the McGovern defeat of 1972. The conventional wisdom, from then on, was that being “soft on defense” explains the party’s crashing defeat in that election. This is “bullshit” in the sense Harry Frankfurt perspicaciously analyzed in his best seller of that name. McGovern lost not because he was “soft” on anything, but because his party deserted him. Between 1968 and 1972, the anti-war movement usurped the place of the Cold War liberals and labor leaders who had run the party from time immemorial. The McGovern campaign was their opportunity for revenge; McGovern became their scapegoat. Note, though, that there is a more plausible claim that is almost the inverse of the conventional wisdom: that, in the 1968 election, Nixon beat Humphrey because the Democrats were not “soft” enough.

2) The Democratic Party must, at all costs, “support the troops.” To defund the war now would violate this requirement too.

COMMENT: Of course, Democrats, like all Americans, should support the troops. But contrary to what we are told by the entire political class, Democrat and Republican, and by the mainstream media, we do not owe the troops support for their “service” to us. They have done us no service; quite the contrary. The Iraq war harms us all; and therefore so do they who carry it out. We owe the troops support because we are complicit in a system that turned good people into economic conscripts, obliged to fight and kill for, yes, “malefactors of great wealth” because they had no better prospects. That same system, and the political regime that superintends it, lets the rest of us, the vast majority, go on about our lives undisturbed. This is grossly unjust. It calls for indemnification. So, yes, we should support the troops. But how does placing them in harm’s way, turning them into purveyors of murder and mayhem, and otherwise disrupting their lives and the lives of their families – count as supporting them? This is another one of those questions that would answer itself, if not for the fog that engulfs our political culture.

Here too reaction to the anti-Vietnam War movement is exacting a toll. Supposedly, those of us who opposed that war didn’t support the troops. Supposedly, it was all the rage, back then, to spit upon soldiers who were fortunate enough to return home alive. Is there a shred of evidence that this ever happened? It certainly didn’t happen regularly; that it did is an urban legend. But there was a good deal of metaphorical spitting. It was done by the government of the United States, and the victims were – and still are – the veterans of that disastrous war. It is even worse now for the veterans of the Bush wars. The problem is not confined to Walter Reed.


3) Immediate withdrawal, the consequence of defunding the war, would make the situation in Iraq worse. The United States has a responsibility not to let that happen.

COMMENT: The United States certainly does have a responsibility; the situation that would purportedly be made worse by immediate withdrawal is one that the United States created. But this is an argument for reparations; not for staying the course, with or without a “surge,” and continuing to make things worse.

There is however a grain of truth in this all too familiar argument. The “surge,” touted as a new strategy, is just a feeble intensification of the old strategy. But, in principle, with enough troops, a semblance of order could be imposed – in Iraq or anywhere else. However the Bush government cannot come close to finding enough troops, without restoring a draft; and, even if they could, they would have to keep them in Iraq indefinitely, something they cannot afford to do. Moreover, the only way this strategy could work well enough to permit the repression ever to be lifted would be for constructive political changes to take place under its aegis. But, if experience has shown anything, it is that the effects of the U.S. occupation are just the opposite. It has already produced a civil war; a more brutal and sustained occupation would turn Iraq into an utterly failed state – with the most dire imaginable consequences for the region and the world.

4) Immediate withdrawal, a consequence of defunding the war, would lead the “terrorists” to “follow us home.”

COMMENT: This should be called the Flypaper Theory: U.S.troops draw the terrorists to themselves and then kill them. Does anyone except neo-cons, John McCain and Joe Lieberman believe it? Is it news to anyone that the terrorists can already follow us home, and that the presence of American troops in Iraq leads neither to their annihilation nor to their sequestration? It’s worth remembering that there were no terrorists in Iraq until the United States made it possible and even necessary for them to go there. At the risk of restating the obvious: the longer the US occupation continues, the greater the risk of terrorists “following us home” becomes.

* *

The evident shortcomings of this last exercise in illogic raise another point, the most important of all. Islamic terrorism has become a problem, thanks largely to American policies. The Iraq War has increased the danger it poses by orders of magnitude. But the threat of terrorism against the United States and its interests abroad can be diminished substantially and abruptly. It’s no secret how: eliminate the irritants that generate it. The first and foremost is the Iraq War itself. Everyone knows what the others are too:

(a) unqualified American support for whatever the Israeli government chooses to do to the Palestinians whose land it occupies;
(b) unqualified American support for brutal and corrupt oligarchs and authoritarian rulers throughout the Islamic world;
(c) the expanding American military presence in the region.

Post-2006 Democrats can stop the Iraq War if their constituents force them to find the courage. As matters now stand, though, there is as much chance that they will end (a) as that they will declare themselves opposed to the troops. They are too much in the thrall of the Israel lobby. (b) and (c) are, if anything, even more intractable. Strategic control of oil resources in the Middle East and Central Asia has become the cornerstone of American policy in these regions. To execute that policy, the U.S. needs compliant local rulers and it needs to be able to project military force. This is why Bill Clinton was as bad on these counts as George W Bush. It could hardly be otherwise: the oil interests both parties serve insist upon it.

Until genuinely transformative, grass-roots politics changes the conditions that make (a), (b) and (c) facts of our political life, the threat of devastating blowback will remain, even after the Iraq War ends. The Democratic primaries can have very little to do with any of this; as with elections generally, they can only ratify changes that have already been forged outside the electoral arena. Without massive popular support, no political leader, certainly no Democratic candidate, will be in a position to move seriously on (a), (b) or (c); not even if one of them were to be miraculously transformed into a genuine statesman (or stateswoman). Only an aroused people can make progress in these areas, just as in the case of Iraq. We are a long way from that point, and therefore a long way from combating terrorism decisively. But we can advance towards that end by holding Democrats, or at least the ones who are amenable to doing the right thing, to account.

In addition to forcing them to endorse immediate withdrawal, we must also force them to acknowledge how insidious talk of “redeployment” and of continuing the so-called Global War on Terror is. Almost all the party’s war funders are guilty on these counts. What they have in mind when they talk about redeployment and more competently fighting the War on Terror could well make (a), (b) and (c) worse. We must make sure this doesn’t happen by insisting that the troops not be redeployed anywhere but home – not in so many months or years, but now! None of the top three candidates are there yet, but Edwards is so far the closest. We must not let him – or anyone else – off the hook.

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