How the Democrats blew it

The Iraq debacle handed Democrats a golden opportunity to deal the GOP a mortal blow and change America's flawed Mideast policies. They played it safe.

Published October 2, 2007 11:16AM (EDT)

The Democrats' antiwar campaign has failed. President Bush's ruinous Iraq adventure will continue indefinitely, despite the fact that a majority of the American people oppose it. Too divided and afraid of being called "weak on national security" to stop funding it, the Democrats have been reduced to hoping that voters punish the GOP in 2008. But since Congress' approval rating is even lower than Bush's (in August, it sank to a record-tying low of 18 percent), it is far from clear that this strategy will work. The war is increasingly perceived as a low-level annoyance, barely even making the news. Amazingly, it now appears possible that the Republicans will suffer no long-term political damage for having started and for continuing to support what is arguably the most disastrous war in U.S. history.

If this happens, the Democrats will have only themselves to blame. By allowing themselves to be intimidated into supporting Bush's war of choice, and by failing to offer a clear alternative to his moralistic, ahistorical, thuggish approach to the Middle East, the Democrats have once again embraced their time-honored strategy of presenting themselves as kinder, gentler Republicans. This strategy hit its nadir in a recent debate, when none of the three leading Democratic candidates, deeming it more important to appear "presidential" than to speak out clearly against the war, would even commit to removing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013.

The Bush administration has been so incompetent that this ultra-cautious strategy will probably work better than it has in the past. The Democrats are likely to win the presidency and hold onto their modest majority in Congress. But after eight years of Bush, a ventriloquist's dummy ought to be able to beat whomever the GOP trots out.

The unpopularity of the Iraq war gave the Democrats a chance to win two decisive victories at the same time. They could have dealt Bush and the radical, corrupt brand of Republicanism he represents a decisive defeat. And they could have effected a fundamental change in America's deeply flawed Middle East policies.

This strategy would have been considerably riskier than the one the Democrats chose to follow -- and it would also have meant a sharp break with their own less than enlightened approach to the Middle East. It would have opened Democrats to the usual GOP charges that they were soft on terrorism and weak on national security. It would have meant challenging the Israel lobby, dividing the party and angering big donors. It would have meant directly challenging a war president.

There was no better time for the Democrats to take the risk and go for broke than after the 2006 elections, when it became clear that America was ready for bold new thinking. For the past year, the Democrats could have been hammering away at the point that Bush, whose "tough" policies have greatly increased the risk of terror attacks, is the one who's soft on terrorism and weak on national security. They could have pointed out that Bush's supposedly pro-Israel approach has actually been as disastrous for Israel, which has to live in the neighborhood that Bush riled up, as it is for America. Militant Islamist groups are stronger; Iran is stronger; Israel's strategic position is weaker. They could have embraced the report issued by the ultra-establishment Iraq Study Group, which bluntly stated that "the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Of course, challenging a war president holds political dangers, but when a war is an obvious failure, it's worth the gamble. But it can't be a halfhearted challenge. As the old saying goes, if you strike the king, you must kill him. The fizzled-out antiwar campaign shows that autopilot patriotism and the self-sustaining inertia of war will defeat any opponent who isn't prepared to play for keeps.

Above all, the American people are ready for a radical change in our approach to the Middle East. Americans are confused about what to do, but they know that Bush's approach has failed. They are looking for leadership and a new approach. They have got neither.

The Democrats have never dared to question the ideology behind Bush's Iraq invasion. Their arguments against Bush's Mideast policy have taken place within absurdly narrow parameters. The most potent arguments against the war are off limits, either because Democrats deem them too politically risky to bring up or because they themselves don't believe them. As a result, Bush, the GOP and war supporters have an enormous built-in advantage. It's as if the Democrats are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. As the 2008 election campaign moves into high gear, and Democrats vie with each other to appear "tough," there is even less chance that these fundamental issues will be raised.

Yes, the Democrats belatedly came around to criticizing Bush for invading Iraq and bungling the aftermath. But they haven't gone further, both because they are too frightened and because many of them actually share Bush's vision of the Middle East, if not his specific actions.

In effect, Bush and his neocon brain trust took existing U.S. Mideast policy and put it on steroids. The results are so grotesque that they have actually produced a teachable moment -- one of those rare occasions when a received ideology is suddenly revealed to be completely bankrupt. (Sept. 11 was another teachable moment. It's almost too painful to contemplate how much better shape America, the Middle East and the world would be in had Bush reacted wisely to that day of infamy.) But the Democrats dithered and nitpicked, and the moment passed.

Because the Democrats have never fundamentally challenged Bush's approach to the Middle East, the entire nightmarish situation there has begun to seem normal. It's normal that a vast American army is occupying an Arab country in the heart of the Middle East, breeding the venomous hatred that leads to terrorism. It's normal that our mercenaries swagger around Iraq, gunning down civilians as if they were dogs. (Did we defeat the British in 1783 only so we could create our own army of brutal Hessians?) It's normal that the Gaza Strip is a gigantic open-air prison and that Israeli settlements continue to be built, each one another nail in the coffin of a two-state solution. It's normal that Pakistan and Lebanon are powder kegs ready to blow up. It's normal that our "friends" who rule Egypt and Saudi Arabia are continuing their despotic ways. It's normal that Afghanistan is falling back into chaos. It's normal that we have ratcheted up tensions with Iran so much that a devastating war seems increasingly possible.

All this is normal -- so normal that the Democrats have said practically nothing about any of it. But when the obnoxious but mostly powerless president of Iran came to New York, Democratic presidential candidates suddenly found it necessary to line up to denounce him as the incarnation of evil. Front-runner Hillary Clinton stayed within the safe confines of establishment ideology, saying, "[Ahmadinejad's] request to visit ground zero, the site of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in our nation's history -- a request that was properly denied -- was unacceptable as Iran continues to refuse to renounce and end its support of terrorism." A majority of Democratic senators voted for a dangerous amendment, co- sponsored by über-hawk Joe Lieberman, and written by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that defines an Iranian military unit as a "foreign terrorist organization."

The fact that Democrats have eagerly participated in Bush and the neocons' campaign to demonize Iran shows that they have learned nothing from Iraq. The Democrats know that Bush lives in his own world outside the "reality-based community," one in which rational behavior is not a given. They know that the neocon nut jobs in Dick Cheney's circle want another war. They know that Bush is engaging in exactly the same kind of propaganda campaign against Iran that he did against Iraq, with "explosively shaped charges" replacing the "mushroom clouds" that Saddam Hussein was going to release from a secret chain of demonic falafel stands located in the "east, west, north and south" of the country. And they know that war with Iran would be a disaster. That's why last March the Democratic leadership proposed a resolution that would prevent Bush from attacking Iran without congressional authorization. But when what the neoconservative New York Sun called "a group of conservative and pro-Israel Democrats" objected, the Democrats caved -- in effect, putting the decision on whether to launch a third Mideast war in Bush's capable hands.

While they abet Bush's Iran madness, the Democrats treat the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, which is by far the greatest cause of anti-American sentiment in the Arab-Muslim world, as if it were a municipal garbage-jurisdiction dispute in Peoria. The Bush administration is doing almost nothing to prepare the ground for the November peace summit, a window-dressing exercise destined to go nowhere. But none of the major Democratic candidates seem to care. None have insisted that Washington and Tel Aviv must put final-status issues on the table, even though without that stipulation the talks are doomed to fail, with potentially grave consequences for Israel, the Palestinians, the region and U.S. interests. Certainly none have dared join that raving radical, Colin Powell, in suggesting that Hamas must be a part of the negotiations. No one endorses Hamas' use of terrorism -- but just as after 9/11, the fetishization of terrorism as pure evil is preventing America from acting in its own interests. From the ANC's guerrilla struggle with South Africa to the IRA's urban war against the British in Northern Ireland, the lesson of history is that peace can only be attained by talking to the men with the guns.

Ironically, reality has forced the Bush administration to accept this moral relativism in Iraq. We are in a looking-glass world, where Bush befriends Sunni Baathists in Iraq who yesterday were blowing up American troops, but the Democrats, who are supposedly less prone to moralistic myopia than Bush, rule out talking to Hamas, which took office in elections the U.S. insisted on, and sing from Bush's far-right song sheet on Iran. Indeed, the only issue on which congressional Democrats are routinely more conservative than Bush is the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. In 2006, the House overwhelmingly approved a sanctions bill against the Palestinians that was opposed by the White House.

The Democrats' failure to challenge Bush's Mideast policies reveals that there are three related assumptions that are considered too sacrosanct and politically dangerous for American politicians to question. The first is that the United States and Israel have clean hands in the Middle East. The second is that those opposed to the U.S. or Israel are evil. The third is that we are entitled to do anything we want in the region to defend our and Israel's interests and ensure a cheap and plentiful supply of oil. Call them the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We're good, they're bad, and we're entitled to do ugly things.

Like uranium, the self-righteous moralism that underlies these assumptions is deadly and has an endless half-life. Even the Iraq disaster couldn't kill it. As the Mideast expert Stephen Zunes noted in an important piece on America's reaction to Ahmadinejad's visit, such ignorant grandstanding and demonizing has a cost: It plays into the hands of war supporters and Mideast hawks, and leaves in place a whole set of toxic myths. "The disproportionate media coverage of Ahmadinejad's UN visit also suggests that Ahmadinejad fills a certain niche in the American psyche formerly filled by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi as the Middle Eastern leader we most love to hate," Zunes writes. "It gives us a sense of righteous superiority to compare ourselves to these seemingly irrational and fanatical foreign despots ... Such inflated threats also have the added bonus of silencing critics of America's overly-militarized Middle East policy, since anyone who dares to challenge the hyperbole and exaggerated claims regarding these leaders' misdeeds or to provide a more balanced and realistic assessment of the actual threat they represent can then be depicted as naive apologists for dangerous fanatics who threaten our national security."

Of course, the Democrats are in major fundraising and pre-primary mode, and so they are playing Mideast policy by the book. No one wants to be seen as outside the establishment parameters, or get on the wrong side of AIPAC or big Democratic funders. Above all, no one wants to be seen as "weak on national security." There's a formulaic, cynical, nudge-nudge quality to Democrats' ritual denunciations of Iran: Everyone knows they have to do it, and everyone knows their actual policies, if they're elected, may differ from their campaign rhetoric. There is even an outside chance that Barack Obama, seeing it as his only opportunity to catch up to Hillary Clinton, will move to the left on the Middle East.

It's foolish to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and Democrats who are disillusioned with their party shouldn't sit out the 2008 elections. Make no mistake: On the Middle East, any of the Democratic candidates would be a big improvement over Bush. They would all emphasize regional diplomacy, work more vigorously and fairly toward a two-state solution in Palestine and wind down the Iraq war. None of them are going to hire neocon World War IV promoters like Norman Podhoretz as Middle East policy advisors, as Rudy Giuliani has. But our Middle East policies are so injurious to our national self-interest, and so destructive to the world, that radical change, not incremental steps, is urgently needed. The tragedy is that Bush's folly has offered Democrats a chance to fundamentally shift our disastrous policies -- and they are missing it.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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