Friday, February 29, 2008

The Democrats' Vietnam Syndrome

If we are lucky, by this time next week the Clintons will have departed the national political scene, never to return. The Republican slime machine is already gearing up to attack Barack Obama. Lucky for him that his middle name is only Hussain. How much uglier the next several months would be if it were, say, Yasser.

If only out of self-interest, one might think that the Democrats would respond with equal or greater vehemence -- attacking John McCain for his “service” in Vietnam. That would not be sleazy at all; it would be principled. But it would conflict with the narrative they have collaborated in concocting almost from the moment that Nixon began to “Vietnamize” the war. Since then, with few exceptions, Democrats have told the same story as McCain: that the war’s aims were fine, that it was fought honorably (for the most part), and that “we” lost because the civilian leadership, intimidated by dissenters, was overly timid. National Security Democrats promote this view. These quasi-neo-cons may be less quick than real deal neo-cons to pick fights. But once they’re in, they’re in. Hillary Clinton was their candidate. Now it looks like Obama will put the kybosh on that. But he won’t challenge their underlying narrative. Thus, instead of castigating McCain as a Vietnam warrior, he praises him. McCain, Obama tells us, may be wrong on Iraq and almost everything else, but he is a war hero, and heroes are owed their due.

Liberals were less obtuse when Ronald Reagan honored fallen German soldiers, including members of the Waffen SS, at a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg in 1985. The soldiers buried at Bitburg were heroes too -- in the way McCain is. But no American liberal, and no sane German, would doubt for a moment that, because they were on the wrong (not just the losing) side, their war service was a disqualification for high political office. That’s because Germany came to terms with its Nazi past to a degree that the United States has never come to terms with Kennedy’s, Johnson’s and Nixon’s war. That McCain might be President is, to use the Biblical idiom evangelical Republicans understand, an abomination. But don’t wait for a Democrat, least of all Obama, to point this out.

The Vietnam War was a crime, not a mistake. Not to acknowledge this is to be susceptible to crimes of a similar kind. This is why, if Obama does what he now says he will, we will have a President who will bring (most) combat troops home, but who will leave trainers, guards and “anti-terror” strike forces, along with background support troops and private contractors (mercenaries) in Iraq for an indefinite future, continuing the occupation. This why Obama will boost the Pentagon budget, boost the size of the armed forces, and intensify Bush’s other war in Afghanistan. Yes, what Obama proposes is better than John McCain’s suggestion that it might be necessary to keep troops in Iraq for a hundred years. But it’s not a change of course; only a smarter implementation of the old course. A lesser evil certainly, but an evil nevertheless.

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Meanwhile, Ralph Nader has announced that he’ll run an independent campaign and not seek the Green Party nomination. This removes party building as a reason to support him. The best that could come of his running now is that his campaign might help keep progressive ideas in circulation, and pull Obama to the left. These are eminently worthwhile goals. But with the media ignoring (and occasionally deriding) him, with liberal Democrats fuming at him, with our very undemocratic electoral institutions impeding his or any other candidacy outside the Republicrat fold, and with clueless Obamamaniacs enthusing over the candidate he wants to affect, one can only wonder how much good another Nader campaign can do.

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