Wimpy Rambos

Terrified of being called weaklings, the Democrats have only dared to nitpick Bush on Iraq. They need to address the real problem: His entire "war on terror."

Published October 3, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

At one time or another, it has caused every football fan in America to scream hysterically at the TV. Your team is ahead late in the game, and the other team has the ball and is driving. But instead of playing aggressively, your team goes into a prevent defense, so called because it's designed to prevent the opponent from making a big play. This tactic can be effective, but all too often, especially when used against a good offense, it ends up costing the team the game -- inspiring the crack, "The only thing the prevent defense prevents is winning."

Somebody should tell this to the Democrats. They're playing the prevent defense with such a vengeance, they should print up bold red-white-and-blue bumper stickers reading "Dems 2006: Groveling Our Way to Victory." They may win the midterms. But will any of us want to live in the country -- or the world -- that they're leaving us?

Sure, the Democrats appear to be fighting hard. Their little arms are flailing mightily, waving the rubber sword that Mr. Rove allowed them to play with. They're making noise about the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which reports -- duh -- that Bush's disastrous war in Iraq has increased global terrorism. They're continuing to hammer away on the lies that the Bush administration told to launch its war. They're criticizing the poor -- or, to be more accurate, nonexistent -- postwar planning.

But these are feeble and superficial criticisms. The Democrats are terrified to go anywhere near the real problem, which is not just Iraq, but Bush's "global war on terror." They should say unequivocally that Bush's entire approach to fighting terror -- not just the Iraq debacle, but the neoconservative and Cold War ideology behind it -- is completely misguided and has severely harmed America's national security.

They should point out that the fight against a few thousand Salafi jihadists is not a new Cold War, and that by turning it into one, Bush is creating enemies faster than we can kill them. They should say, as terrorism expert Louise Richardson does in her important new book, that purely military solutions to indigenously supported terrorism only work if you're prepared to destroy entire populations.

They should deride Bush's comic-book-like claim that groups as radically different as al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian regimes and Sunni insurgents in Iraq are all part of the same monolithic "Islamofascist" menace that wants to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia." They should sound the alarm about Bush's criminal neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which polls repeatedly show is the single greatest source of anti-American feelings in the Middle East and the Muslim world.

The Democrats should put terrorism in perspective. They should acknowledge that we grossly overestimated al-Qaida's strength from the beginning, and that, as James Fallows argues in the Atlantic, they are far weaker now. They should point out what every expert on terrorism knows: that no country can ever be completely free of terrorism, and so any "war on terrorism" is doomed both to be endless and to fail.

The Democrats should urge us to implement a quiet but effective two-track tactic against terrorism, in which we use intelligence and law enforcement to hunt down existing terrorists, while we pursue a foreign policy that will decrease the number of future terrorists. And they should warn that a U.S. attack on Iran would be a blunder so vast that it would make the Iraq quagmire look like the cakewalk Bush's ignorant cheerleaders told us would be.

But the Democrats are not saying any of this. As a result, Bush has continued to intimidate them. And the consequences for America, at home and abroad, have been catastrophic.

The most egregious recent example is Bush's detainee bill, which was just approved by Congress. This bill denies terrorism suspects the right to habeas corpus, one of the cornerstones not just of our judicial system but of Western civilization. It also allows the use of torture, although it discreetly avoids using that unpleasant word. Legal scholars are already ranking it as one of the worst pieces of legislation in American history.

Yet some Democrats, fearful of being called "soft on terror," actually supported it. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Salon, "In my own caucus, people say, 'We can't oppose this, look what happened to Max Cleland.'" (The former Georgia senator, a Vietnam veteran confined to a wheelchair because of war wounds, was defeated in 2002 by GOP ads smearing him as soft on terror.) "We have to go along with it because we'll never be able to explain it back home.'" That prompted the Vermont senator to add, "Maybe one way to explain it is to say, 'I stood up for you and your rights.'"

As a result of Republican cynicism and thuggery, and Democratic weakness, what was formerly shameful and done in the dark is now the official law of the land. As Matthew Iglesias noted in the American Prospect, our acceptance of this bill essentially makes us a rogue nation. It is a black day in American history -- and the Democrats did not even filibuster.

Abroad, the Democrats' refusal to challenge Bush's radical ideology and force-addicted policies means that our unbalanced Mideast policies go unchanged, Muslim and Arab hate grows daily, our allies turn against us, the Iraq debacle goes on and on, and a catastrophic possible war with Iran looms.

By not raising these fundamental issues, the Democrats have ensured that Bush will be able to dictate the terms of the debate -- and that he'll always win. As long as both parties accept that we're facing an imminent and apocalyptic threat by a vast horde of evil "Islamofascist" zombies who have no grievances, no history, only the bloodthirsty desire to kill infidels and reestablish the Caliphate and who will forever spring up like malignant demons out of the earth regardless of what we do or don't do, little things like habeas corpus, the right to know what you've been charged with and the right not to be subjected to "extreme physical pain" really don't matter. When you're fighting Satan's minions, you gotta do what you gotta do.

It's no mystery how this happened. Ever since 9/11, the Democrats have been terrified that Bush and the Republicans will accuse them of being "soft on terror." It was to avoid this fate that they cast their fateful votes to authorize Bush's Iraq war -- a vote that has tied them in pretzel knots ever since. Since then, they have rolled over for a long line of draconian measures put forward by the Bush administration, and vied with each other to see who could pose as the manliest Rambo. John Kerry all but walked onto the Democratic convention stage wearing a helmet and carrying an M-16 because his advisors told him he needed to look tough. Yet, predictably, none of this has stopped the Republicans from continuing to accuse the Democrats of being "soft on terror." Nor has it swayed the voters, who still see the Democrats as wimpier than the Republicans.

Poll after poll shows that Americans think Republicans are stronger on national security than Democrats. And even though Americans have turned dramatically against the war in Iraq, they still give Bush consistently high marks for the way he is conducting the "war on terror." It is impossible to overestimate the importance of these polls. Democrats, believing that they prove that being seen as "soft on terror" is indeed their Achilles' heel, have decided they have no choice but to pose as even tougher than Bush. Thus the deeply depressing spectacle of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic front-runner, and other leading Democrats attacking Bush for not taking a hard enoughline on Iran.

The cowering -- but oh-so-"tough" -- Democrats were never likely to challenge the conventional political playbook that told them not to give Rove a chance to beat them up on national security. And now that Bush's political fortunes have dipped, they see even less reason to do so. With the unspeakable nightmare in Iraq a millstone around the GOP's neck, the Democrats have decided to keep playing the prevent defense -- concentrating solely on criticizing the Iraq debacle, where they have a strong hand, and avoiding taking any positions that would let Rove and Co. paint them as appeasing traitors.

This make-no-mistakes, let-Bush-hang-himself strategy certainly looks politically savvier now than it has previously, and the Democrats are hoping it carries them to victory in the midterm elections. It may. But even if it does, the Democrats should abandon it -- if not before the midterms, then as soon as possible.

By any conventional political measure, breaking with the toughness paradigm and launching a direct attack on Bush's "war on terror" could be seen as rash to the point of insanity. Bush strategists, twisting slowly on the Iraq gallows, would regard a sudden, unprovoked Democratic move to the left as a miracle, the political equivalent of the long-distance rifle shot Clint Eastwood fires to sever the noose around his partner Eli Wallach's neck in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Cackling with glee, Rove and Co. would dump the entire scary contents of their witches' cauldron on every Democrat within reach. Forget calling the Dems the party of Neville Chamberlain -- we're talking Tokyo Rose, Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot.

But the Democrats would weather the storm. They need to recall an earlier period in American history, when a cunning demagogue used accusations of un-Americanism, cowardice and fellow-traveling to scare the country into submission. But Joe McCarthy finally went too far, and a courageous, plain-spoken lawyer named Joseph Welch took him down. That was the America we've lost, and it feels like a distant memory. But it happened once and it can happen again.

Ending Bush's disastrous approach is a matter of life and death, and America's future as a world power. Ever since 9/11 this country has been driven by fear and hysteria. That was understandable for a while -- that's what happens after nearly 3,000 people are killed in a terrorist attack. But the time for self-defeating emotionalism is over, and the U.S. desperately needs to approach the post-9/11 world in a radically different way. The Democrats need to shift the entire terms of the debate about how the U.S. should respond to terrorism. They need to reject Bush's failed approach and offer a clear alternative, one that, as Richardson argues, replaces the self-defeating "toughness" mantra with "effectiveness."

The Democrats' effective anti-terrorism policy would mandate a much smaller American military footprint abroad and a much larger emphasis on "drying the swamp" of terrorism by addressing its root causes. It would insist that we live up to our own highest ideals, by refusing to jettison the laws and principles that have guided us through far more dangerous threats than this. It would also acknowledge that our Iraq adventure has utterly failed and that our continued presence there is no longer in either our or the Iraqi people's interests. A recent poll shows that most Iraqis want us to leave. We should take them seriously.

I have no illusions that the Democrats will do this anytime soon -- if ever. Some Democrats actually agree in broad terms with Bush's neoconservative, Cold War ideology and militarist approach to the "war on terror." But many do not, and are biting their tongues for political reasons. This has locked them into a hopelessly cramped ideological position. Democrats can only nitpick, criticizing the Iraq war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and blaming Bush for executing it poorly. This is a safe position, but it leaves the Democrats unable to challenge, on principle, the radical measures Bush constantly proposes, and makes it far more difficult for them to take a principled stand against whatever destructive military gambit or Constitution-shredding domestic initiative Bush comes up with next. A bold move would give them freedom to swing from the heels.

In thrall to the sophisticated demographic analysis that now rules politics, the Democrats have robotically swung right, trying to appeal to that minute swing-and-independent portion of the electorate that has been deemed crucial to victory. But high-tech analysis is incapable of measuring intangibles like voters' gut reaction to straight shooting and cojones. Probably the main reason that John Kerry, a decent if not outstanding candidate, lost was that he came across as programmed.

The fact is that the Democrats, suffering from Beltway myopia and running on conventional wisdom autopilot, are underestimating the American public. That public may be ill-informed (31 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, one of the most frightening statistics ever recorded) and susceptible to demagogic appeals, but it has a keen nose for psychological reality, and it sees the Democrats for what they are -- spineless tough guys. It's schoolyard politics: Until you punch a bully in the nose, he will just keep bullying you. If the Democrats summoned the courage to abandon the pose of toughness, much of the public might initially turn on them. But there is reason to believe that in the end it would see them as being real -- and genuinely tough.

And if not now, when? The Democrats are holding all the cards, and they're still flinching from phantoms. Everything about Bush's "war on terror" has been a disaster, and people are beginning to realize this. The constant new revelations of Bush administration lies and incompetence -- Bob Woodward's new book and Colin Powell's biography are just the latest -- are about to burst the feeble levees that are still protecting this administration. There's no better time for the Democrats to strike boldly.

Americans are ready for new ideas. A Pew poll taken in August 2006 showed that Americans increasingly believe that "reducing America's overseas military presence, rather than expanding it, will have a greater effect in reducing the threat of terrorism."

Indeed, there is reason to believe that the public is much more fed up not just with Iraq, but with Bush's fearmongering and his endless "war on terror," and less afraid of terrorism, than the chattering classes believe. Americans really aren't that cowardly. It's been five years -- enough already.

There is a deep cognitive dissonance in Americans' simultaneous rejection of Bush on Iraq and their support for him on the "war on terror." If the Democrats can make this contradiction apparent, Bush's advantage on national security will vanish. What the Democrats need to do is hammer home the idea that all Bush has in fighting terror is an Iraq approach -- it's all Iraq, all wars, all military, all toughness, all bring 'em on. There is no other approach. It has failed, and it will continue to fail.

The public is ready to awaken from the half-fearful, half-hypnotized state it has been in since 9/11. If the Democrats give the American people an alternative, they would realize just how much they would like not to live in Bush's dark and medieval world.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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