Why the Murtha Gambit Will Backfire
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On the surface, it seemed like a brilliant political strategy for the Democrats. Send out a decorated war veteran (Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts), a former Marine with an impeccable pro-military record -- the first Vietnam veteran to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, in fact -- to be the point man for the bring-the-troops-home-now assault.
And it seems to have worked brilliantly.
Calling the Iraq war "a flawed policy wrapped in illusion," Democratic Pennsylvania Congressmember John Murtha declared earlier this month that "It is time for a change in direction [in Iraq]. The Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the United States will immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free. Free from United States occupation. Our military has done everything that has been asked of them, the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. IT IS TIME TO BRING THEM HOME."
At first, the Bush White House and the Republican leadership reacted as they almost always do when criticized -- they tried to slime the critic, questioning Murtha's patriotism and anything else they could think of. Bush press secretary Scott McClellan called Murtha's position a "surrender to terrorists" and accused him of "endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party."
A Republican Congressmember intimated on the floor of the House that Murtha was a coward, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert all but did the same, releasing a statement that read, "Rep. Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They want us to wave the white flag of surrender to the terrorists of the world. We must not cower like European nations who are now fighting terrorists on their soil."
But by the weekend, the White House had toned down the attack considerably. From China, President Bush called Mr. Murtha "a good man who served our country with honor and distinction as a Marine in Vietnam and as a United States congressman. And I know the decision to call for immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way."
The President concluded, a little wistfully, only that, "I disagree with his position."
And House Leader Hastert was also backpedaling on his attack on Murtha. A Hastert spokesperson told the New York Times this week that even though Hastert had used the word "cower" in his statement about Murtha, Hastert "did not use the term directly about Mr. Murtha."
It was a notable retreat for a president and a Republican leadership that doesn't often back off on any issue. Both Murtha's initial statement and the failure of the administration to come after him with guns blazing gave political cover for other Democrats who have been wanting to call for a troop withdrawal, but were afraid of paying a steep political price.
One might conclude that because this turn of events may lead to a shortening of U.S. involvement in Iraq, it is a good thing for progressives and anti-war activists.
But that ain't necessarily so.
The Murtha gambit sets a dangerous precedent for what kind of person can take the lead in criticizing the nation on matters of war and security. It concedes that the only moral voice who can oppose a war is someone who supported and/or participated in a past war. The flaw in the argument is that the Bush Administration and much of the national Republican leadership couldn't care less about distinguished past service; their strategy is to kneecap the opposition, using whatever methods, fair or foul, that come to mind.
Murtha gambit's may end up winning the battle for progressives (a quicker withdrawal from Iraq), but losing the larger war, the one being fought over the hearts and minds of the public about the role of the military in American life and world affairs. And so we may leave Iraq as we left Vietnam -- with too many people in high places convinced we would have won had we only given the military a fighting chance and better strategies. These people will still be willing -- and, perhaps, eager -- to test that theory out in some other part of the world.
In the 2004 Presidential race, John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero, was widely characterized by Bush supporters as a fraud and a coward. Former United States Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost three limbs in combat in Vietnam, lost his 2002 re-election race after Republicans charged that he was not sufficiently patriotic. Distinguished military service did not prevent either man from being slimed on the soldier issue.
The mothers of soldiers killed in combat are among the most venerated and honored citizens in the United States; but that did not stop conservatives from flinging mud at Cindy Sheehan for saying her son died in vain in Iraq.
Last summer, conservative bloggers posted Sheehan's August divorce petition online. They conducted extended speculation on the nature of her relationship with her estranged husband, with one self-described "life-long conservative spokesperson" contending that Sheehan's former husband "disagrees with Cindy's activities and has left her because of them. ...[Sheehan] is so wrapped up in her own cause and celebrity that she doesn't have time to try and help her family. This is not a sympathetic figure, she is a hateful, destructive, selfish woman who is more interested in her political agenda than she is in honoring her son or saving her family."
In this atmosphere, perhaps the Bush team didn't back off from the Murtha fight because they respect his military record, but because they did not have sufficient time to find something to smear him with. In doing so, they have set the bar impossibly high for the Democrats.
If the Dems dare to put forward only anti-war spokespersons who are immune to Republican smear attacks, and if the only people immune to Republican attacks are those who have impeccable war records, the ranks of Democrats who can take the lead in opposing this war or any war, will soon become depressingly thin. It also implicitly bows to the specious conservative argument that one who opposes a war while that war is in progress cannot, by definition, be a patriot.
A member of Congress once stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and forcefully explained his reasons for a vote against an ongoing war that was, he declared, "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President." The war in question was the Mexican War, and the Congressmember was Abraham Lincoln. People have questioned a lot of things about Mr. Lincoln, but rarely his patriotism, or his record as a "war President."
The danger for progressives in allowing the Murtha gambit to go forward without comment is evident when looking at the many times Murtha and Kerry have made derogatory remarks about Republican leaders who avoided combat during the Vietnam War. It may sound good when aimed at Republicans; but isn't it also an attack on anyone who dissented in '68?
Anti-war activists should certainly welcome Murtha's call to "BRING THEM HOME." It would appear that the Pennsylvania Congressmember is a man of conscience who came to his conclusions after painful deliberation over the fate of the United States military, which he clearly supports and loves. But anti-war activists and progressives should also beware the trap perhaps unconsciously set by Murtha's entrance into this discussion.
It was the anti-war activists -- from Congressmember Barbara Lee to the hundreds of inhabitants of Camp Casey to the millions of demonstrators who have poured out into the streets of this country -- who have led us to the moment where the war in Iraq is no longer supported by a majority of Americans. Without pressure from activists, there might have been no Murtha call for immediate withdrawal. For those progressive leadership voices to allow themselves to be relegated to the backwater of the Iraq war debate at this historic turning point in time would not only be a mistake for progressives, it would be a national and international tragedy.
J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area.