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Playing defense: Iraq as a factor in US politics


The intersection between politics and national security is sufficiently well trodden that hopefully I can explain myself with a couple of quick allusions. Possibly somebody out there still buys the old saw that goes, "Politics stops at the water's edge," but if it ever has, contemporaries failed to document it. Probably more people subscribe to the conspiracism of Wag The Dog.

I'm somewhere in between. I doubt that George W. Bush had reelection uppermost in his mind when he decided to take out Saddam. But being on a war footing during an election certainly seems to favor an incumbent, so long as public support for the war effort remains reasonably intact.

But will it remain intact? What will Iraq mean for the presidential election this November? And how should that affect how Americans think about Iraq?

The emerging talking-head consensus in the US, particularly after the capture of Saddam, is that being distinguishable from George W. Bush on the matter of Iraq will be a liability for any Democratic presidential candidate. Indeed, it could even spell disaster. The cover article in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine by James Traub concludes:

Strong and wrong beats weak and right -- that's the bugbear the Democrats have to contend with. George McGovern may have had it right [about Vietnam] in 1972, but he won Massachusetts, and Richard Nixon won the other 49 states. McGovern recently said that he is a big fan of [Democratic front-runner] Howard Dean, whose campaign reminds him very much of his own. Dean may want to ask him to hold off on the endorsement.
What is to be done? Well, one school of Democrats believes that the answer is to go all-out against Dean before he secures the nomination. The following letter from a ubiquitous Democratic national security expert, which appeared in Jan. 3, 2004 editions of the New York Times, illustrates the idea:
To the Editor:

Paul Krugman (column, Jan. 2) thinks that Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee could attack a centrist Democrat just as easily as they could attack Howard Dean in this fall's presidential race. That makes no sense.

Dr. Dean is a Northeasterner from a small liberal state who avoided the draft; who wavers in his commitment to win the peace in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq; who continues to stand by the absurdity that we are no safer with Saddam Hussein in custody; and who wants to offer North Korea a sweeter, softer deal to come back into compliance with its denuclearization commitments.

Mr. Krugman is letting his disdain for President Bush cloud his political judgment.

Washington, Jan. 2, 2004
The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

What leads O'Hanlon -- as noted above, a Democrat -- to vent these rather questionable accusations? It's doubtful that he believes any of it himself. More from the same worthy appeared in James Traub's article:
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a nightmare in which Dean wins the nomination, conditions in Iraq improve modestly and in the course of a debate, President Bush says: ''Go to Iraq and see the mass graves. Have you been, Governor Dean?'' In this nightmare, Bush has been, and Dean hasn't. ''Saddam killed 300,000 people. He gassed many of these people. You mean I should have thought there were no chemical weapons in the hands of a guy who impeded our inspectors for 12 years and gassed his own people and the Iranians?'' O'Hanlon glumly says that he has resigned himself to the thought that ''the Democratic base is probably going to lose the Democrats the election in 2004.''
It follows that Dean's opposition to invading Iraq in the first place will make him political poison, and that his Democratic rivals, such as Sen. John Kerry, who bent to George W. Bush's insistence on having a war, were exercising the better part of valor.

Such is the counsel of cowardice, and a gross disservice to the United States of America. Following its logic, no political figure ever should have raised his voice against the disastrous adventure in Vietnam, or indeed should ever consider opposing a Commander-in-Chief's decision to use force, regardless of circumstances, for fear of the demagogic blasts that any dissent might reap. We are left with the thought that where national security is concerned, one man should lead and all others ought to follow. This formula reduces debate to an anemic wisp, and exposes the nation to the consequences of all sorts of ill-considered undertakings.

One need not go as far as President John Quincy Adams' famous dictum that "America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Understanding since the Second World War that freedom in one place is connected to freedom in another, Americans do more than wish others well; we also assist, defend, and rescue.

Perhaps George W. Bush believes that this is not enough, that we also must also hazard American lives in hopes of visiting the blessings of self-government on those who have never enjoyed them. He made no such claim in taking the country to war -- then, he spoke of mushroom clouds rearing over our cities, a rationale that John Quincy Adams himself might well have embraced. But in the absence of the missing weapons of mass destruction, Americans are indeed hearing more from their President about Iraq's rape rooms and other forms of shorthand for atrocity. What a shame that our government gave essentially no thought to the task of ushering in a better day for Iraqis once the fighting was through. As it stands, we have precious little assurance that the new ex post facto rationale for war will not seem at least as foolish as the touting of the WMD threat in the weeks, months, and years following a US withdrawal from Iraq.

Will public support for the war remain intact? What will Iraq mean for the presidential election this November?

The answer is not as obvious as it seems to the likes of Michael O'Hanlon. Let's consider the likely outcomes with a simple game-theoretic matrix. The alternative possibilities are 1) the Democrats nominate a positioning artist like Kerry or Lieberman vs. nominating an anti-warrior like Dean or Clark, and 2) the war looks like a triumph for Bush in November vs. looking like an albatross for Bush in November.

War goes wellBush is a bold leader, Democrat is his followerBush is a bold leader, Democrat unwisely defied him
War goes poorlyBush is a failure, Democrat is his followerBush is a failure, Democrat heroically defied him

(Note that this is without any comment on the likelihood of different possible outcomes in Iraq by this November.)

Simply enough, if the war goes well in the public's eyes, the outcome will be poor for the Democrat, regardless of what position he took. But if the war goes poorly, it's still Bush's war, regardless of what position the Democrat took, probably even if the Democrat looks like Bush's dupe.

And how should that affect how Americans think about Iraq?

Essentially, it should teach us that these tactical considerations aren't worth much, certainly not enough to tempt us to override either our principles or our better judgment about national security. It is an act of necessary statesmanship to do what is right in matters of war and peace, setting aside the imagined or feared political consequences. The alternative would leave the American public bereft of meaningful representation in the nation's capital, and subject to the whims, passions, and vendettas of its leader, who becomes free to use our blood and treasure much as an absolutist European prince might have.

This "alternative" more or less describes the actual result of the votes of Sen. Kerry, Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Edwards, Rep. Gephardt, and the votes of many other Democrats to authorize an invasion of Iraq -- a question that Republican political whizzes had scheduled for immediately prior the 2002 midterm elections. Playing defense failed to benefit the Democrats in 2002 -- they lost the Senate, their last stronghold in the federal government. And caving on Iraq certainly hurt the country. The finest moment of American democracy, it wasn't.

The various positions on Iraq taken by the candidates for the Democratic presidental nomination make no electoral difference that anyone actually can predict. Nor do any candidate's views offer much hope for the situation in Iraq -- the moment that such things mattered, in the fall of 2002, is past. But each candidate's stance does reveal something of character.


Jan. 5, 2004. As a point of clarification, my comments are not intended to suggest that Howard Dean knows which end is up on foreign or defense policy. Then again, neither does George W. Bush. And neither did Bill Clinton during his first term, and I have mixed feelings about the second. And then there's Ronald Reagan...

That's what you get when you elect a governor.

Continuing observations about the politicization of U.S. foreign policy are here and here.

(An accidentally deleted reader comment appears below.)

I agree that being a bear on Iraq is not going to help the Democratic candidate. I find it interesting that the polls showed a drop of a few points for Bush just after the capture of Saddam Hussein. Right now it seems that a generic unnamed democratic candidate would beat George Bush 43:41% with many undecided.
I suspect it will NOT be the same after there is a definite Democratic candidate.

The problem I have with Dean is that I haven't any idea what he stands for. His campaign position statements contain more than the usual ratio of air to substance, and the ideas he expresses are at the approximate level of sophistication of a 6th grade social studies class. If his entire policy is built on the idea that all the people of the world should play nice together, Dean should not be put in charge of the most powerful country in the world. When he does say something more substantial, he contradicts it the next day. His only issue has been Iraq, and he has failed to make a case that he really had a better (workable) idea or that he really has a better idea now. His solution is to get the UN to take over. It is all very well to ask the UN to take over, but the UN has to agree also, and other countries besides the US have to be willing to send troops and spend money. Is there very much value in having the same US troops there and the same level of exposure, but with a UN or Nato flag to cover it? Does anyone remember that the Korean war was fought by "the UN?"

Bush was a relative unknown in 2000 facing a candidate with national recognition who made too many gaffes.

The Democrats are going to have even more of a problem this time 'round, especially if they chose someone from New England. They need a southerner or border state candidate to have a hope of carrying the south. Somehow I have the feeling they aren't going to carry Florida no matter what.


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000152.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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