A Defining Moment For the Democratic Party

When the press began leaking news of the Bush administration's then secret plan to attack Iraq, I began thinking that, at least on the federal level, liberal and leftists, with a welcome mat for moderate Republicans and Democrats, have to band together to clobber the Bush Republicans in the 2002 and, especially, the 2004 elections. But then as the Democrats remained silent against the administration's imprudent warmongering, I began to think, if the Democrats don't have the guts to stand-up against what is probably the most ridiculous and dangerous foreign policy initiative in American history, then who needs them? What is their purpose?

Polls indicate support for a war against Iraq but only with the consent of Congress and the support of the United Nations. When people are asked if "taking out" Saddam is worth American casualties, support dwindles. Polls show that rank-and-file Democrats are wary of war if not dead-set against it. The public is taking the testimony of administration critics seriously. When retired military leaders, like General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded Operation Desert Storm, and General Wesley Clark, who commanded the Kosovo operation, warn against the Bush policy, there's reason to listen.

To be sure, congressional Democrats are in a difficult position. Iraq has pushed Bush's disastrous economic policies off the agenda. If the Democrats oppose the war, Bush can attack them, as he already has, as unpatriotic and soft on terror.

But the Democrats need not have walked into that trap. From the very beginning they let the Bush administration get away with a self-serving definition of terrorism that implicates every country that opposes U.S. policies. They could have been more outspoken about the war in Afghanistan, insisting that the administration put resources behind police work, humanitarian aid and nation-building. They could have factually traced Bush's Iraqi obsession to positions taken before Sept. 11 that had nothing to do with Al-Qaida.

The administration has tried all kinds of arguments to rationalize a pre-emptive strike on Iraq and none of them have been convincing. Speaking for the administration, Condoleezza Rice is recycling the claim that bin Laden and Saddam are in cahoots. This time she may be right. One result of Bush's unilateral fixation with Iraq is to unite extremist Muslims into a multilateral anti-American movement.

Will the Democrats speak out to expose this folly!

Opposing the administration does not necessitate going out on a limb and calling for, say, unilateral disarmament. All the Democrats need to do is insist that if Bush has a grievance with Iraq because it is violating U.N. resolutions, he should go to the U.N. and get U.N. backing for any military action. Military action should be the last resort and, not as the Bush administration advocates, the first option.

This is not a particularly bold initiative. All it insists upon is that the Bush administration adhere to international law and the stated ideals of our own diplomatic tradition. A pre-emotive strike, what the Japanese did to us at Pearl Harbor, is morally wrong. The Bush Doctrine, which would give the U.S. the right to unilaterally attack any country or remove any government that displeases a President, is fascism. It's also a litmus test of patriotism. Every American should stand up and oppose it.

Bush-backing Republicans will, of course, try to fudge the issue. In Vermont, Republican candidate Bill Meub is attacking Independent Congressman Bernie Sanders, who is a critic of Bush's unilateralist policy, for undermining the war on terrorism. But the Bush policy that Meub supports would fracture the multinational effort to track down terrorist networks. It's not the critics of the Iraqi war, but its supporters, who are undermining the war on terrorism. TV images of bombs falling on Baghdad will serve Al Qaida as a recruitment poster for future terrorists.

Some Democrats have spoken up against the Bush Doctrine. (In Vermont, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy has joined independents Sanders and Jim Jeffords as war-critics). But the Party, as an oppositional force, remains disunited. Presidential aspirants Richard Gephardt, John Edwards, Joseph Lieberman continue to shill for the Bush administration and have probably disqualified themselves as presidential contenders. John Kerry and now Al Gore have spoken up. But they have to go further. They, or others, will have to show leadership and, like Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening of the Vietnam War era, make it the issue. An attack on Iraq is not in the nation's interest.

Vermont's governor Howard Dean has been a big surprise. He not only has demanded that Bush get U.N. backing, but he has had the guts to criticize the self-serving politics that inform Bush's foreign policy. Dean, if he sticks to his guns, may emerge as the Gene McCarthy of the 2004 election. One thing Vermonters know is that he can be stubborn (even if not always for the right reason). His support of civil unions was right, however, and also courageous. Under attack from right-wing homophobes, his defense of civil unions was eloquent and unwavering.

In the last week, more Democrats have spoken up against Bush's rush-to-war policy. Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, California's Dianne Feinstein, Michigan's Carl Levin, Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, and others give one hope. But what we need is party leadership. They need to see themselves not as individual dissidents but as opposition leaders with a party behind them.

The Bush administration talks about a regime change in Iraq, I'd like to see a regime change in Washington. For the Democrats this is a defining moment. If they stand united and strong against the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and unilateral military action, they will rally people behind them. If they cave in to the administration's demagoguery, it'll be 1968 all over again and they will lose their party.

Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net.

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