Saturday, August 27, 2005

We broke it, we own it

The debate between the Cindy Sheehan camp and President Bush has reframed the questions around Iraq in a way that could be devastating for the Democrats.

Over the past week, the President has taken his show on the road to contest the central premise that is being argued on the streets of Crawford. With the willing complicity of the Sheehan camp and, he has framed the issue as whether the United States should withdraw immediately from Iraq. He says no, they say yes.

Like any good strategist, the President has defined the terms of the debate and chosen a field for battle on which he as substantial advantage.

Or one advantage really. He is right.

The Move-on legions that are braced for battle in Crawford are fueled by anger and frustration at the existence of a war that is a sideshow in the war on terrorism and their failure to escalate the debate over the war beyond syllogistic platitudes. They seek in Crawford to score points in the political battle and inflict damage on a President in his vacation bunker.

Meanwhile, Bush has escalated the argument, and has gleaned substantial strategic advantage, as shall become clear over time. Rather than pursuing what seemed to be the logical course of action: meeting with Sheehan, feeling her pain, asserting the overriding national interest and honoring her son, Bush has used the opportunity to move away from difficult questions of how and why we got into Iraq to a more simple debate and countered Sheehan’s emotional appeal by drawing on the wellspring of other mothers who have sacrificed for their nation and who continue to support Bush’s war.

The issue, Bush has asserted, is not Cindy Sheehan’s pain, but whether immediate withdrawal is the right thing to do. Should the United States, having entered Iraq and unleashed the simmering tribal and ethnic hostilities long held in check by Saddam now simply leave Iraqis to clean up their own mess. Or rather our mess.

As Colin Powell suggested in advising against the war early on: you break it, you own it. We, as a nation, now own it. We may disagree on how we got there, but that is a problem of our politics, our national character, our capacity to lead in the world. Whatever the origins of that war, it is now our problem.

Bush and Karl Rove, to say nothing of Democratic leaders, know well that to leave now would leave the Iraqi people vulnerable to civil war and anarchy. The time to leave Iraq will be when a duly constituted and legitimate Iraqi government asks us to leave. Not sooner and not later.

We have broken their politics, and until it is fixed we, as a nation, own it.

The problem that we face, and that is manifest on the streets of Crawford, is that our politics is also broken. We argue war through syllogisms and bumper stickers. Support the troops. Fight them in Baghdad. Bring them home. We are collectively responsible for our presence in Iraq. The Senate voted for regime change and ultimately war in Iraq several times and with no meaningful dissent outside of West Virginia.

But for Bush the politics are working just fine. Once again, the Democrats have walked into the trap. They have walked onto a battlefield of Bush’s choosing and still don’t understand why the President is still smiling.

The Democratic Party is at grave risk in this debate. In the absence of articulate national leadership, the legions of Move-on are now framing the foreign policy of the Party. Leave Iraq now.

Just wait. In 2006 and 2008 part of the debate will focus on the readiness of the Democrats to lead in a world of terror where hard decisions have to be made. Somewhere in the bowels of the vast right wing conspiracy, or in an office in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, they are already laying out the central themes of the debate:

They were ready to abandon the Iraqi people to the predations of terrorists and to civil war.

That was wrong, it was immoral, it reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of our role in the world.

They are not ready to lead.

Not now, perhaps when the war on terror is over…

Friday, August 26, 2005

Democracy is a bitch

Hugo Chavez is not Pat Robertson’s cup of tea. I get that.

Watching the evening talk show circuit, evangelicals of the right and the left argued the consequences of one of their own, and a prominent political figure at that, calling for the United States to “take out” the duly elected leader of Venezuela. The argument from the left was that Robertson’s call was clear and convincing evidence that it was time for him to step down from his position of leadership within the Christian evangelical community, and that his call for assassination was inexcusable and unacceptable.

Clerics of the right were more forgiving. What Robertson had said was wrong, they asserted, but his words were spoken as a political leader, not as an evangelical. And furthermore, we need to look at Chavez, and consider whether or not it would have been moral to assassinate Hitler early on if we had the chance.

And so it begins, the moral equivalence theory. Hugo Chavez is the new aspiring Hitler, a threat to his people, a threat to regional stability, or more succinctly a threat to our interests. Better to kill him now than let things get out of hand.

The problem is that Chavez was elected. Yes, I know, so was Hitler. But please, get a grip. Hugo Chavez is a populist, socialist political leader in a country that despite oil wealth has failed to achieve the development strides that have been expected over the years. In Chavez, the electorate of Venezuela chose a leader committed to the redistribution of wealth and to the poor of that nation.

The bitch of Democracy is that sometimes people vote their own interests––or what they believe to be their own interests––in the face of the objections of the economic and political elites who argue that free trade, historical property rights and other shibboleths of the modern economy should not, can not, may not be breached.

The simple fact is that Hugo Chavez was elected in Venezuela, that he represents a platform and a point of view that was well articulated, and that in the face of protests he won reelection. If the poor of that nation have been had, it will be they who suffer for it. And if Chavez serves their interests, leaving behind the interests of the middle class and the business community? Well, so goes democracy.

We are heading down the path of democratization in the world. The Neo-Conservative theory is that democracies do not fight each other, that democracies do not foment internal conflicts, that democracies are morally transcendent. Good. But that still does not mean that we are going to like the outcome.

Venezuela may elect a socialist. Iraq may elect a theocrat. Russia may elect a spook. The real question is whether in the wake of such elections, the process continues and a new election follows two, four or six years later. One fear is that of Algeria, where the Islamists were elected and once in power dismantled the nascent democratic institutions. The other fear is that the person duly elected acts against the perceived interests of the United States. That is a bitch. So do we suck it up or take them out? Such is the question that Pat Robertson has laid before us.

And it is no idle threat. Like any good superpower, we have a history of manipulating other nations in pursuit of our national interests, and the fact of democracy has not been a deterrent. In 1953, the CIA led a coup to oust Mohammed Mossadegh, the elected Prime Minister of Iran, after he nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Twenty years later, the duly elected President of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and reportedly murdered following his nationalization of U.S. owned copper companies. The Vietnam war, which like the Civil War continues to define national policies, politics and attitudes, emerged from the ashes of the cancellation of national elections in 1956 and the subsequent assassination of the elected Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

As Americans, we tend to look toward the future and pay less attention to the past than those in other nations. President Bush pronounces that our motives are benevolent and that we have no interest in empire. By all accounts he cannot understand foreign distrust of our motives. And for an electorate that believes in the best of our national creed, his words resonate.

Other nations, however, are deeply rooted in their history. The very map of the world is defined by the colonial ambitions of the western powers and the politics of nascent democracies like Iraq grow directly out of the residue of a colonial history that brought diverse peoples together into a single nation state without any defining common identity or institutions.

We should not wonder that Pat Robertson’s words are taken seriously. They strike close to home, and the electorate in nations far from our shores still watch anxiously to see what we will do if their democratic choices run contrary to our own national interests.