Monday, August 30, 2004

A Convention's Conventional Wisdom

In his Think Again column for the Center for American Progress, Eric Alterman further probes the myth that prevails in the realm of American conventional wisdom which holds that the sober analytical Republicans are better suited to handle issues of national security and foreign policy than their more sensitive and ideologically inclined Democratic counterparts, which I discussed in a two part series here and here. [Ed Note: I apologize for some repetition in the topics and facts discussed in this and other posts, but it is my intent to follow through with certain themes that I have been working, highlighting evolving story lines that corroborate earlier arguments and assumptions, thus constructing a well documented meta-narrative].

Alterman gets to the heart of the matter, that the rhetorical device, as is so often the case, does not withstand empirical scrutiny, both historical and current. In fact, much of the critique of the Democrats' policies that emerge from right-leaning sources seem to contradict many of their own prior proclamations and theories. Witness the logical inconsistency and intellectual dishonesty in this apparent flip-flop from neoconservative stalwart Charles Krauthammer (who recently was taken to task by his neoconservative compatriot Francis Fukuyama
here - bad week for Mr. Krauthammer I guess):

Consider a Time magazine article from March 1999 entitled, "The Clinton Doctrine." In it, the neoconservative warrior takes Clinton to task for his willingness to use the American military to oppose ethnic cleansing and the killing of innocent civilians. "The problem with this doctrine," according to author Charles Krauthammer, "for all the ringing moral satisfaction it gives, is that it is impossibly moralistic and universal." He goes on to say that "highfalutin moral principles are impossible guides to foreign policy. At worst, they reflect hypocrisy; at best, extreme naiveté."

But lo and behold, when a conservative Republican president justifies a far more costly war on the same grounds, Krauthammer is happy to march behind him. In May 2003, Krauthammer suddenly changed his mind about the value of "highfalutin moral principles," and argued, "We are embarking on [the reconstruction or Iraq] out of the same enlightened altruism that inspired the rebuilding of Germany and Japan – trusting that economic and political success in Iraq will have a stabilizing and modernizing effect on the entire region. But our self-interest does not detract from the truth that what we are doing in Iraq is morally different from what we did after World War II. In Iraq, we are engaged in rescue rather than the undoing of our own destruction." He would go on in other articles to wax poetic of the "moral purpose of the entire enterprise" and to ask, "Is our purpose in Iraq morally sound? Of course it is."
On the historical front, Alterman examines the justifications for the claims that Democrats, and in particular John Kerry, are prone to "cut and run" when the going gets tough. This part of the myth appeals to historical amnesia and selective recall. The most recent example cited by the Right is Clinton's decision to remove troops from Somalia after the "Blackhawk Down" incident. In that case, though, Clinton was being attacked by the Right for staying in Somalia and subjecting troops to those dangers (a deployment that Bush Sr. initiated as a sort of going away present during the interim lame duck period), and was equally, if not more vociferously, lambasted when he pulled out the troops. The more advantageous meme, that of the weak-kneed capitulator, has emerged as the victor from the GOP camp's orderly and coordinated talking points regime, and so that is how Clinton's handling of Somalia is described.

But what if that same critical lens is turned upon the icon of the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, the same man that teary-eyed partisans want to enshrine as an addendum to Mt. Rushmore or as the usurper of FDR on the dime or Hamilton on the ten dollar bill:

John Kerry is now being tagged with the label of a "cut and run" liberal who will pull our troops out of Iraq before the job is done, thereby endangering our national security. But if we are going to have a national referendum of the potential failures of a liberal administration, we first need to take a look back at how conservatives have actually handled military action in recent years. Let us not forget the conservative 1980s, when cutting and running seemed to be what we did when presented with a problem. President Reagan let quite a bit slide during the decade, beginning in April 1983, when he essentially ignored a Hezbollah suicide bomb attack on the American embassy in Beirut that killed sixty-three employees, among them the Middle East CIA director. Just six months later, in October, another Hezbollah suicide bomber attacked the American barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines and wounding another 81. His response? Pulling the Marines out of Lebanon. But this wasn't all. As Reagan-booster Norman Podhoretz helpfully points out in the new issue of Commentary: "Having cut and run in Lebanon in October, Reagan again remained passive in December, when the American embassy in Kuwait was bombed. Nor did he hit back when, hard upon the withdrawal of the American Marines from Beirut, the CIA station chief there..."
More priceless quotes from neoconservative sources. Podhoretz, Krauthammer, Fukuyama, when will it end? But I digress. Alterman further delves into the "cut and run" meme vis a vis Kerry's challenger in this election, George W. Bush, in the most relevant of arenas, Iraq:

And how does the current administration fare by this standard? Not well, alas. Although the press has been loathe to admit as much, the American military has in essence given up on several strategic objectives in Iraq, pulling troops out of what may have been a winnable fight. Take the siege of Fallujah by 1,200 Marines in April. After fighting street by street with insurgents for about two weeks (at the cost of 36 American lives) the United States halted the siege on the condition that the militants hand over their heavy weapons – which they failed to do. The Marines waited outside the city for another two weeks before pulling out, handing a victory to the insurgents and leaving the city in the hands of religious extremists.
The failure in Fallujah was monumental, and one that continues to imperil the Iraq mission as a whole. Fallujah has become the central planning location for the Sunni led faction of the insurgency. Without Fallujah, there will be no stability, just a continuation of the suicide bomb attacks and assassinations that have so plagued the progress of stability.

This view is supported by a marine helicopter pilot, who told a New York Times reporter, "Fallujah, in fact, was very close to becoming a city our forces could have controlled, and then given new schools and sewers and hospitals, before we pulled back in the spring. Now, essentially ignored, it has become a Taliban-like state of Islamic extremism, a terrorist safe haven."
Having backed down to Sunni insurgents in the North, leaving them with a stronghold and sanctuary in Fallujah, the Bush administration continued to waver in the face of resistance in the South from the Shiite insurgency led by Moqtada al-Sadr. Despite the frequent declarations from L. Paul Bremer and other CPA officials, that they were going to either kill or capture al-Sadr, they have succeeded at neither. In fact, al-Sadr has only derived strength and support from his frequent showdowns with American forces, from which he emerges defiant and unharmed. In the latest example of indecision, the Bush team let al-Sadr engage in a protracted siege in the city of Najaf, which was only resolved after negotiation, with the emboldened al-Sadr withdrawing his forces, but suffering no consequences. I'm not suggesting that storming the Imam Ali Shrine would have been the wise choice, but the repeated concessions to al-Sadr have strengthened his hand, and his newly minted prominence and influence threaten the democratic process and succeful evolution of an Iraqi state, as detailed by Larry Diamond writing in Foreign Affairs. At the very least, this policy should serve as an example of hypocrisy in the characterization of Democrats as weak-willed, sensitive and prone to negotiating with terrorists. Isn't that what the Bush team has been doing with remarkable frequency in Iraq?

But where is the outrage from the right over our inaction? Shouldn't they be up in arms, calling for these terrorists' heads? Isn't this exactly what they accuse liberals of trying to do – cut and run, or negotiate and wait? As Peter Beinart recently admitted in the pro-war New Republic, "By ignoring the Bush administration's repeated capitulations in the face of Islamist terrorism in Iraq, conservatives can preserve their cherished partisan categories: Kerry lacks spine; Bush doesn't blink in the face of evil...Because the Bush administration arrogantly refused to do what was necessary to secure – and thus rebuild – postwar Iraq, most Iraqis have turned against us. And now, America's political weakness has produced military weakness. At the end of the day, if you don't listen and you don't plan and you don't adapt, you lose your capacity to be tough." [emphasis added]
Over the next week, during the Republican Convention, we will hear echoed ad nauseum the theme that the country should "stay the course" with Bush because of his unwavering strength in the war on terror. There will be innuendo and allegations to the effect that Kerry and his fellow Democrats are weak, sensitive, out of touch, unrealistic, prone to capitulations, naively believing they can negotiate with terrorists, and above all planning to "cut and run" in Iraq. The so-called liberal media will do nothing to expose these charges as baseless or ahistorical, just as they have done nothing to prevent this meme from becoming an accepted principle of conventional wisdom. But I guess it is foolish to look for wisdom in conventions, or liberal bias in the media.

[Update: This Sunday's New York Times had an article discussing the situation in Fallujah and neighboring Ramadi. It is a detailed account, and worth the read. Here is one quotation relevant to the discussion above:

"Still, Marine commanders at Camp Falluja, a sprawling base less than five miles east of the city, have been telling reporters for weeks that the city has become little more than a terrorist camp, providing a haven for Iraqi militants and for scores of non-Iraqi Arabs, many of them with ties to Al Qaeda, who have homed in on Falluja as the ideal base to conduct a holy war against the United States. Eventually, the Marine officers have said, American hopes of creating stability in Iraq will necessitate a new attack on the city, this time one that will not be halted before it can succeed."]

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