Democratic Implosion

Can the party of the people be saved from itself?

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The idea that we are going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong.

— Howard Dean

And there is no reason… that young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, you know, women, breaking sort of the customs of the — of — the historical customs, religious customs.

— John Kerry

The U.S. cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home.

— John Murtha

Howard Dean, the head of the Democratic party, assures us that we cannot win the struggle for democracy in Iraq. He predicts, as proved true in Vietnam, that the United States will inevitably fail. So it makes better sense to flee now, admit defeat, and thus lessen our inevitable losses.

To Dean, the constitutional evolution in Iraq and the growth of its democratic security forces follow the doomed model of Vietnamization — another sham transition bound to implode.

In this regard, irony is lost on Dean: After terrible sacrifices, mistakes, and government dissimulation, Vietnamization between 1971 and 1975 finally was working. The American military had largely rid the south of the Viet Cong; a peace treaty had established two sovereign nations; and American ground troops were withdrawn.

Yet the war was later lost mostly because a partisan antiwar Senate, emboldened by Watergate and in hatred of a duplicitous Nixon, cut off most material and military aid to the south Vietnamese. That precluded as well American air support to deter an opportunistic conventional invasion from a calculating northern army that had quickly sized up the politics of the U.S. Congress.

Dean seems to evoke Vietnam without any inkling how close the United States was, after a decade of ordeal, to achieving many of the goals originally envisioned — something like a viable South Korean government that, unlike its Communist counterpart, might have a chance to evolve into a truly consensual society. Much less does he cite the millions who perished, were incarcerated, or sent into exile following the establishment of a cruel Stalinist regime, or the effect of that defeat on the security of the U.S. and its allies, as later demonstrated in Cambodia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central America.

Not long ago, John Kerry was on a Sunday talk show. Without much of a warm-up, he was soon alleging that Americans were terrorizing Iraqis in their homes. Apparently such unproven criticism was meant as a critique of U.S. policy by a former (and future) candidate for president — but it unfortunately came just days before a critical election that may at last smooth the way for democracy in Iraq. One can imagine Sunni rejectionists hoping to derail the elections by proclaiming that even a former American presidential candidate admits that the infidels are “terrorizing our women and children.”

Like Dean, Kerry appears insensitive about the irony: He just lost an election in part because too many Americans recalled his Vietnam-era record of trying to score cheap political points by trashing brave American troops in the field, thanks to his own constant evocation of Vietnam on the campaign trail.

Kerry also called breezily for the resignation of secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the midst of the war. Unfortunately, Kerry’s subsequent exegesis of why the secretary should be sacked only proved why we are lucky to have Rumsfeld and not Kerry or Howard Dean in a position of administrative responsibility.

Despite the stentorian intonation, Kerry’s new suggestions for what to do in Iraq simply outlined what the United States is in fact already doing: training Iraqis, providing protection for the ongoing constitutional process, talking to regional neighbors, trying to get the Europeans involved in the Middle East, and hunting down terrorists on the Afghan borders. Kerry then admitted — though he did not during the election of 2004 when the war polls were more iffy — that he now regrets his vote authorizing the war against Saddam. All that was missing was a George Romney moment in which Kerry might have revealed that he had been brainwashed — and that almost came when he blamed the administration for giving him misleading intelligence briefings.

Sadder still for Kerry, not long after his embarrassing call for Rumsfeld’s resignation, the secretary of Defense offered a review of Iraq and answered questions at a televised news conference at the School for Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins. Where Kerry blamed others for his apparently now-embarrassing vote, Rumsfeld took responsibility for going to war. He pulled no punches in explaining its ongoing difficulty, and answered tough questions by explaining why and how we are winning.

Contrast the Democratic reactions to respective advice offered by Congressman Murtha and Senator Joe Lieberman. The former is a respected but not nationally known Democratic figure; the latter ran for the vice presidency of the United States. The Democrats gushed over Murtha’s bleak Dean-like assessment that the war is essentially lost and that we must leave as soon as possible. But then when a vote was called on the issue, they voted overwhelmingly not to follow the congressman’s prescription.

In contrast, when Lieberman returned from Iraq and gave a cautiously optimistically appraisal that our plan of encouraging elections, training Iraqis, and improving the Iraqi economy is working both inside Iraq and in the wider neighboring region, he was shunned by Democrats — who nevertheless by their inaction essentially agreed with Lieberman and so made no move to demand an immediate withdrawal. How odd to be effusive over the Democrat whose advice you reject while ignoring the spokesman whose advice you actually follow.

Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Congressman Murtha represent the Democratic mainstream. And that’s the problem. None of them can be characterized as embracing the Michael Moore/Cindy Sheehan fringe, and none are even prone to the wacky grandstanding of Jimmy Carter or Barbara Boxer.

Yet what we get from the national chairman, the former presidential candidate, and the new popular icon — on the verge of the third and final election in Iraq — is a de facto admission that we are losing and must leave.

In the background, old Vietnam-era themes provide the chorus for the growing antiwar sentiment: apparent disdain for the Iraqis, mirroring the way that liberals pooh-poohed anti-Communist Eastern Europeans, Cubans, and Vietnamese; endemic pessimism that does not match the rapidly evolving events on the ground; and political opportunity that an American embarrassment abroad might reverse a long-term and ongoing unfavorable political realignment at home.

When Saddam was removed in a brilliant three-week campaign, few anticipated that the subsequent effort to craft democracy in his wake would evolve into a conflict for the very heart of the Middle East. Most feared that postbellum Afghanistan would be the harder task — given the wealthier and more secular nature of Iraqi society.

Instead the war, as wars almost always do, has morphed into something quite different than expected — a regional referendum on Lebanon, the future of Syria, reform movements in the Gulf and Egypt, about-faces in Pakistan and Libya, and continued pressure on a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. And despite the heartbreak of 2,100 deaths, we are not just winning in Iraq, but on the verge of something far larger, and more permanent: not a return to the ancient caliphate or another dictatorship, but the real chance for the birth of a new Middle East that takes its place at last among responsible nations.

All that was impossible to envision without the prior American removal of Saddam Hussein — now reduced to a pathetic deposed tyrant, railing against his victims and in his misery calling those “terrorists” who did not give him clean underwear. He plays the role of the dying thug right out the pages of Plutarch; all that is missing are Sulla’s worms.

Dean, Kerry, and Murtha are bright and good men who rightly worry that more Americans will die in a far-off place for a cause that they think is now hopeless. But to follow their apparently popular advice would lead to an abject national disaster as well as calamity for their own party. In short, they have become metaphors of why even Democrats are uneasy about voting for Democrats.

More importantly, the Democrats spent the last quarter century, following Vietnam and Jimmy Carter, trying to reestablish their lost fides on national defense (which were once unquestionable in the age of FDR, Truman, JFK, and senator Henry Jackson). If Joe Lieberman cannot save mainstream Democrats from themselves, perhaps the Iraqis who vote on December 15 can.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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