In Des Moines last week the Democrats hashed out the particulars of the war in Iraq, the fate of Medicare, the hemorrhaging of jobs, and the deplorable state of healthcare in this country.
All are issues of vital importance, and the candidates made sounds of outrage at the reckless foreign policy, corporate cronyism, and the heartless abandonment of our societyâ€™s most vulnerable that have been the hallmark of the Bush presidency. But with the rare exception of Dennis Kucinich, they demonstrated their cowardice, ineffectuality and fealty to the status quo.
This only issue that really matters in this election is whether the next president will prolong the war in Iraq; all others hinge upon it. Without the end of the war, any domestic initiatives are un-fulfillable promises — pure rhetorical wind.
The candidates, by and large, have committed to ceaseless imperial war. Howard Dean has made much of the fact that John Kerry and Dick Gephardt offered Bush a blank check to attack Iraq, but he is fully committed to pursuing the war now that it has evolved into a bloody occupation. The decision to go to war was last yearâ€™s debate; and then even Dean was missing in action. As Gephardt pointed out, Dean backed a Congressional resolution early in the year that had only technical differences with the measure that gave Bush the green light to go to war.
When, in March, it became clear that a broad swath of the country was disgusted by U.S. aggression, only then did this crop of Democrats begin to position themselves as critics of the war. Now it doesnâ€™t matter where they stood. The fact is that they are marching in lockstep with the current policy.
The argument for staying the course is easily trotted out: weâ€™ll leave Iraq in worse shape than when we found it, Iraq will be plunged into civil war, the militant Islamists will have a new foothold in the Near East.
It is a seductive argument. Even formative anarchists in my acquaintance who stood against Clintonâ€™s duplicitous provocation of Saddam Hussein and engaged in the last decadeâ€™s street battles against corporate globalization, who organized against the war, are now captive to this reasoning.
But among the contenders for the presidency, the subtext is maintaining the prestige of the empire and an almost pathological fear of losing face. Almost none of them are willing to face up to the fact that there is no way to salvage this misadventure.
Just as in Vietnam, the longer we wage the war, the deeper we dig ourselves into the hole. We persist at our own peril, in a foolâ€™s game that leads the rest of the world unwillingly into a wider conflagration that forecloses on anything resembling human rights, democratic assertion or economic justice.
It is inevitable that one day American forces will leave Iraq. It would be naÃ¯ve to imagine that an immediate withdrawal wonâ€™t be marked by desperate power struggles, internecine warfare and emboldened religious zealotry. But it will be much worse two or three years from now than next year.
The bad faith of the Democratic position is exemplified by Carol Moseley-Braun, who chides Bush for his inability to â€œplay well with othersâ€ and stands against the doctrine of preemption. But now that the horses are out of the stable? â€œWeâ€™re not a country that cuts and runs,â€ she says. Withdrawing now would undermine the â€œprideâ€ of our fighting forces. Most telling: â€œWe want to withdraw with honor.â€
This is a position that recalls nothing so much as Richard Nixonâ€™s 1968 campaign promise of â€œpeace with honor in Vietnamâ€ — a disingenuous prelude to the murderous Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1970.
Only Kucinich had the temerity to hold up two pages of photos of dead American service men and women in the Washington Post during the Nov. 25 debate in Des Moines, and only he offered a plan of withdrawal that wasnâ€™t riddled with equivocation, half measures and diversions. Bring the troops home in 90 days, he proposed, cancel the contracts to Halliburton et al, and turn governance over to the UN until the Iraqis can choose their own government.
The rest speak of â€œinternationalizingâ€ the conflict, as if the French and Germans would be anxious to sacrifice young lives in service of American profit given a president with more sensitivity. Or, like General Clark, they make references to the troopsâ€™ insufficient resources, a faint echo of the dangerous argument that the Vietnam War might have been won if the generalsâ€™ hands hadnâ€™t been tied by faint-hearted civilian leaders. Or they offer up the conceit that Democrats are more adept at diplomacy. This is tinkering, not substantive policy difference.
The delusions reverberate through journalistic organs of elite opinion like the New York Times and the New Yorker, which expend intellectual energy deconstructing how the â€œpost-warâ€ has been mismanaged by the Bush administration. The vast amount of speeching and journalistic print fails to grasp the point that the invasion and occupation of a country with its own cultural and political inertia is untenable no matter how itâ€™s managed.
The tragic irony is that Bushâ€™s extremism has forced the Democrats to break with the corporatist orthodoxy of the Democratic Leadership Committee. Four years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a candidate like Gephardt would feel emboldened to espouse the values of the New Deal. Or the party would abandon its commitment to the Washington consensus of neoliberalism and propose changes in trade policy that would safeguard worker rights and codify environmental protections. There is, for once, a real debate about the role of private enterprise in healthcare (notwithstanding mediator Tom Brokawâ€™s deft change of subject when Kucinich insisted on a hearing for universal single-payer healthcare).
The Democrats in this season are to various degrees proposing expanded access to higher education. They want to balance the budget. They want to make health insurance available to more Americans. They want to pour money into roads, bridges and other infrastructure. They want to invest in technology research to expand the job base.
The tragedy is that none of this economic agenda is affordable as long as we continue to wage the war in Iraq, saddled as we are with the ballooning cost of munitions, military bases, rations, troop transport, and civil administration. The war now has entered a phase of counterinsurgency bombing, humiliating curfews, and deepening hatred between the occupied and the occupiers.
None of these would-be leaders has the courage to end it.
In the final moments of the debate, General Clark conjured the scenario of a debate next year between the experienced warrior and the chicken hawk demagogue.
â€œI am the one candidate who can stand with Bush, and win,â€ he said.
Separate that declaration into its parts. Broken down, it is a statement of solidarity with the policies of the current president, and an expression of raw personal ambition.