Democrats See Progress in Iraq: Reflections on Moral Failure and Progressive Naiveté

Recently I was speaking to a liberal Iowan peace and justice advocate who told me she was “disappointed” and “surprised” by the leading Democratic presidential candidates.  The source of her dismay was a front-page New York Times article showing that the Democrats are toning down their criticism of the Iraq war because of reports that violence has abated somewhat in Baghdad (see Patrick Healy, “As Democrats See Iraq Gains, A Shift in Tone,” New York Times, 25 November 2007, p. A1).


As we spoke I noticed two bumper stickers on the back of her Volvo.  One said “War is Not the Answer” (quoting from Martin Luther King, Jr’s April 4 1967 speech to the Riverside Church).  The other read “Obama ’08.”


“Don’t they understand,” she asked me, “that this war is immoral?  I don’t want to hear about ‘progress’ in an illegal invasion. I thought they knew better.”  


Reflecting that Hitler probably read pleasing reports of “progress” in the occupations of Poland and France, I started to answer. Her phone rang.  She had to run, and so did I.  I doubt we’ll talk again before the Iowa Democratic Party caucus on January 3rd.


Too bad.  I was going to tell her that she is part right and part wrong.  She is right to consider the invasion of Mesopotamia illegal and immoral and to be deeply disturbed by supposed “opposition” politicians who claim to see “progress” in its execution.  “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OIF) is a monumentally criminal, brazenly imperial, and significantly oil-driven action – a deep transgression of the United Nations Charter and civilized norms that has killed a million Iraqis and displaced 2-3 million more.  The Iraqi regime and the Iraqi people posed zero threat to the United States and the U.S. assault on their nation violates the most fundamental tenets of international law. The United States’ “war” with Iraq is naked imperial aggression, pure and simple.


The liberal Obamanist revealed profound naiveté, however, when she expressed astonishment at the Democrats’ refusal to question the morality of the depraved war.  It is widely assumed that dominant liberal opinion is strongly opposed to the Iraq invasion.  But one can seriously oppose an immoral war because it is wrong or one can claim to oppose it because it is not working smoothly. From the 2004 John F. Kerry campaign through the current quadrennial election extravaganza, the “liberal” Democrats’ disagreement with Bush’s Iraq policy has never focused on the morality or criminality.  It has complained that the war was a strategic mistake (a tactical blunder) and/or that it isn’t going well.  The Democrats have waffled between seeming to want to call off the “mistake” and calling for it to be managed more effectively – by Democrats, of course. They have not wrestled meaningfully with “OIF’s” moral and legal bankruptcy.


Does anyone seriously think John Edwards would be calling his 2002 vote to authorize the invasion a “great mistake” if “OIF” had proceeded as planned and met no serious opposition from the illegally occupied Iraqi people? As for Barack Obama, he can rail all he wants on how he opposed the invasion while serving as a state senator in Illinois during the fall of 2002. His much-ballyhooed “dumb war” speech (“I’m not opposed to all wars, I’m opposed to dumb wars”) deleted the illegal and petro-imperialist nature of the invasion being planned in Washington. It said nothing about the racist nature of the administration’s determination to conflate Iraq with 9/11 and al Qaeda. It argued that invading Iraq would be a foreign policy mistake – something that would likely not work for American power – but NOT that it would be a brazenly imperialist transgression certain to kill untold masses of innocent Iraqis.   


Having later admitted that he might well have voted to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq had he been in the U.S. Senate in the fall of 2002 (New York Times, 26 July, 2004) [!], Obama has repeatedly voted to fund the occupation since his arrival in the U.S. Senate. He voted to confirm as Secretary of State (of all things) the mendacious war criminal Condoleezza Rice, who played a critical role in advancing the preposterous Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) claims used to sell the invasion. He distanced himself from fellow Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin when Durbin faced vicious right-wing attacks for daring to tell some basic truths about U.S. Gestapo-like torture practices in Iraq.


Obama used his considerable political and campaign finance muscle to back centrist Democrats against antiwar progressives in numerous Congressional primaries in 2006. He supported the neoconservative invasion hawk Joe Lieberman – his self-chosen Senate mentor – against the antiwar insurgent Ned Lamont in Connecticut. He has repeatedly and absurdly argued that the occupation was launched with the best of [democratic] intentions” and praised U.S. military personnel for their “unquestioning” “service” in Iraq and – despite numerous U.S. atrocities there – for “doing everything we could ever ask of them.”


His belated calls for withdrawal are hedged by numerous statements indicating that an Obama White House would maintain a significant military presence in and around Iraq for an indefinite period of time. He refuses (like Edwards and Hillary Clinton) to support taking a reckless (possibly even nuclear) and illegal U.S. military assault on Iran “off the table” of acceptable U.S. foreign policy options. And last April, he rewarded Cheney-Bush by warning fellow Democrats not to “play chicken with our troops on the ground” by denying the Occupier- in-Chief funds to continue his reckless and mass-murderous oil invasion of Iraq.


Beyond the officially marginalized Kucinich and Gravel, none of the Democratic presidential candidates can join the reactionary arch-capitalist and former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan in daring to make the elementary observation that the invasion was “largely about oil.” They are unwilling to acknowledge the depth and degree of the holocaust that “OIF” has inflicted on the Iraqi people, preferring to prattle on about the “heroic” “sacrifice” made by inherently noble U.S. military forces serving “without question” in a venture based on the best of democratic intentions. 


This may all be a great moral failure on the part of the Democrats, but it is deeply consistent with the richly bipartisan nature of U.S. imperial policy and doctrine (1). In a similar vein, the top Democrats’ failure to join Kucinich in advancing the obvious and popular health coverage solution – Canadian- and Medicare-style single-payer insurance – is all too predictable and consistent with the Democratic Party’s captivity to corporate funding, corporate media, and neoliberal doctrine.


Ironically enough, the Democrats’ unwillingness to publicly recognize the immorality of the Iraq occupation makes them more vulnerable than they should be to charges of being “defeatist and lacking faith in the American military” (Healy, “As Democrats See Iraq Gains”). It’s difficult and dangerous to seem to oppose a war whose underlying nobility you continue to absurdly uphold.


For these and other reasons, the party of Cheney-Bush may do better than is commonly expected in 2008. But even if the messianic-militarist G.O.P. loses, U.S. foreign policy may not improve all that much in a moral sense.  The most likely Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is an open imperialist who still refuses to call her 2002 war authorization vote even a mistake (how about a crime?) and who voted to support Cheney-Bush’s preposterous, provocative, and saber-rattling resolution to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as an “international terrorist organization” (2).  “If Mr. Bush actually does make a strike against Iran,” liberal Sunday New York Times columnist Frank Rich notes, “Mrs. Clinton will be the only leading Democrat to have played a cameo role in enabling it.”  And if Hillary is the Democratic nominee in 2008, Rich adds, a fear- and war-mongering Republican will “once again square off against a Democratic opponent who was for a preemptive war before being against it” (Frank Rich 2007. “Noun + Verb + Iran = Democrats’ Defeat?” New York Times, 4 November 2007).


In case anyone cares, there’s a real and powerful organization of international terror afoot in the Middle East.  It’s called the United States Armed Forces.



Veteran radical historian Paul Street ([email protected]) is a writer, speaker and activist in Iowa City, IA and Chicago, IL, and the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004). His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).  





1.        See Tony Smith, “It’s Uphill for the Democrats: They Need a Global Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq,” Washington Post, 11 March, 2007, p. B01; Jeff Faux, The Global Class War: How America’s Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future and What It Will Take to Win it Back (New York: Wiley, 2006), pp. 92-107; Laura Flanders, “Clinton: Class of ’68,” in Laura Flanders et al., The Contenders (New York: Seven Stories, 2008), pp. 19-21; Anthony Arnove, Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal (New York: New Press, 2006), pp. xvii, 3, 5, 7,  12, 52, 66, 98-101, 113.


2.        Obama couldn’t bother to be present on the Senate floor to vote against the same resolution.  To his credit, Edwards has strongly criticized the resolution as war-mongering.

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