I’ve claimed that our problems in Iraq are due to mistakes and misjudgements by the president, but also to America’s internal divisions — especially the anti-war reflexes of dovish Democrats. Josh Marshall disagrees.
In his latest post, Marshall misrepresents my point. I did not say, and I do not believe, that the dovish Democrats are “the real villains” in the matter of Iraq. Nor do I try to exempt President Bush from responsibility for our current troubles there. On the contrary, I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, and I’ve said so. The administration has made some very serious misjudgements. Yet the dovish Democrats have also played a role in America’s current troubles.
When I say dovish Democrats, by the way, I am not talking only about the Democrats in Congress. I’m talking about dovish Democrats in general: for example, a mainstream media dominated by Democrats who’ve hoped for defeat in Iraq, and who’ve done their best from the start to paint the war in the worst possible light. That has had real effects on our resolve, and on the resolve of our enemies in Iraq.
Marshall says the Democrats in congress were a minority, and politically powerless. Yet in a country divided by razor-thin political margins, a party in power has to weigh its actions in light of the opposition’s political plans. We’re always just an election away from a transfer of power, as we’ve seen.
Take the congressional example I gave (an example Marshall has not addressed): Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel’s plan to restart the draft. Rangel’s plan is making news right now, but he first introduced it about a year before the last presidential election. Rangel and the Democrats hoped to raise the specter of a draft as a way of undercutting public support for the war, for the Republicans, and for President Bush. As Winston Groom writes in a new article on the Democrats and the draft:
One of the most cynical political tricks played in the 2004 presidential campaign was the false rumor, started by Democrats, that if George W. Bush was reelected, he secretly planned to reinstate the military draft. Clearly, this was aimed at striking fear into the American student population and their frightened mothers, in order to mobilize them to go out and vote for the antiwar candidate, John Kerry.
Of course there was no truth to the Bush draft rumor, which nevertheless whipped across the Internet, and then onto cable news talk shows and into newspaper columns. Fact was, at the time, there were two bills before Congress to restore the draft, but both were sponsored by liberal Democrats—Charles Rangel in the House and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings in the Senate. No Republicans supported them, and certainly not the Bush administration.
My point is that this kind of political strategy, and the larger dovish sensibility behind it, puts constraints on our military policy in Iraq and beyond. That, in fact, is the purpose of these proposals. They are a kind of political shot across the bow, designed to warn Republicans that the war on terror is going to have to be fought without a larger military. Even if the president had tried to expand the military on a strictly volunteer basis, Rangel would have pointed to the danger that enough recruits might not be found. So just by raising the prospect of a larger military, the Republicans would have fed dovish claims that a draft was on the way.
Rangel’s very real political warning shot, like the larger and long-standing dovish sensibility behind it, helped to shape the “light footprint” strategy that has worked so poorly in Iraq. (I made a similar point back in 2003 in “Troop Dearth.”) Does that exempt the administration from a huge share of responsibility for our problems in Iraq? Absolutely not. But it is a reality that the big dovish constituency in this country has put significant constraints on our military policies. And those constraints have contributed to our problems in Iraq and beyond.
Yet let me say it again: I am not trying to exempt the administration from criticism or blame for our troubles in Iraq. Far from it. I think it’s critically important right now for conservatives to face up to the administration’s serious mistakes in Iraq, so as to learn from them. This has been the focus of my posts on The Corner of late. (See “Democracy Illusions.”) This administration has been far too cavalier about the social and cultural barriers to democratization, and that has led to a huge mismatch between our political ambitions in Iraq and our military means. Classically, conservatives and “neo-conservatives” alike have had a healthy respect for the dangers lurking within plans for radical social change. Conservatives today have got to find a way to recapture that insight, while continuing to take account of the deeply serious challenge posed by Islamist terror in a nuclear age.
Much of the left has been in denial about the scope of the Islamist threat. Conservatives understand the threat of Islamist terror very well, yet have seriously underestimated the cultural obstacles to democratization. Somehow both sides have got to rebalance.