The Magazine

The State of the Democrats

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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"A few weeks ago, we were doing some work on my back porch back home, tearing out a section of old stacked rocks, when all of a sudden I uncovered a nest of copperhead snakes. . . . A copperhead will kill you. It could kill one of my dogs. It could kill one of my grandchildren; they play all the time where I found those killers. You know, when I discovered those copperheads, I did not call my wife Shirley for advice, as I usually do on most things. I did not go before the city council. I did not yell for help from my neighbors. I just took a hoe and knocked them in the head and killed them, dead as a doorknob.

"I guess you could call it unilateral action--a preemptive strike."

--Zell Miller (D-GA) in the Senate, October 3, arguing for the use of force against Iraq

UNTIL NOW, this magazine has found very little to praise in the Democratic party's contribution to the national debate over a U.S. "preemptive strike" against Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad. And our complaints have not simply, perhaps not even essentially, concerned the bottom-line philosophical and practical questions at issue.

Our own answers to those questions are hardly a secret, of course. THE WEEKLY STANDARD believes that Iraq presents a situation in which traditional policies of containment have become infeasible and therefore dangerous. We think preemptive action against that country's weapons of mass destruction is necessary sooner rather than later. We consider President Bush's promise to take such action, with or without the formal sanction of "international opinion," a brave and wise one. And we find all the most commonly circulating arguments to the contrary singularly unpersuasive.

Oddly enough, though, we have not found those arguments circulating all-that-commonly, or fervently, within the Democratic party. Yes, Jimmy Carter still walks among us, vulgar as always, cheerfully accepting a Nobel Peace Prize tendered explicitly as a rebuke to our current president. And, yes, there is Al Gore, similarly remote from contemporary relevance, insisting that he could do better than Bush on Iraq (but declining to tell us exactly how). Yes, too, a certain rheumatoid disapproval for non-humanitarian exercises of American military muscle is still current in the Democratic party's "intellectual" base--in the media, and in the academy. And yes, undeniably, among congressional Democrats, especially in the House of Representatives, there does exist what still deserves to be called an "anti-war left." Fringe elements of which are still prepared outright to deny the threat posed by continued Baathist rule and proclaim America the aggressor in the Persian Gulf. But the key word here is "fringe." Reps. David Bonior and Jim McDermott--what with their Lord Haw-Haw pilgrimage to Baghdad and Basra--aren't exactly the Democratic party norm.

So our principal gripe, and the Democratic party's fundamental foreign-policy problem, has not so much been that they are "wrong" about Iraq. We have blamed them, instead, for something like cowardice. For not even daring to be wrong. For refusing to declare themselves about what's right to do, and trying their damnedest to change the subject. For shrinking from shared responsibility, with their Republican colleagues and with a Republican president, to fashion a credible American response to what most Democrats have all along conceded is--in Saddam and his ilk--a new and grave global danger.

But that was before. A great many congressional Democrats have since declared themselves on the subject of Iraq--during the week-long congressional debate culminating in last Thursday's House and Senate votes to authorize renewed U.S. military action there. It seems only fair, then, with benefit of this fresh evidence, to revisit the charge of cowardice, and ask again: How is the Democratic party doing?

Faintest praise, if any, goes to those Democrats who last week did finally dare to be wrong--and were. Sen. Robert Byrd was by far the worst of them, wronger, and louder about it, than anyone else. Much of what he said was incoherent. The rest was an embarrassment; Byrd at one point compared the president to Hermann Göring. Then there were men like Sen. Kennedy, who argued, without equivocation, that any preemptive military strike by one nation against another--Pearl Harbor was the example he offered --"flies in the face of international rules of acceptable behavior." Absent an "imminent" threat to American lives, Kennedy concluded, U.S. action against Saddam Hussein will constitute "imperialism" and will therefore "deprive America of the moral legitimacy necessary to promote our values." It is a point of view, we suppose.

And it is reassuring, we further suppose, that Kennedy's point of view seems not very widely held. Neither he nor any other senator so much as bothered to introduce an alternative measure that would have blocked the president from conducting a renewed assault in the Persian Gulf. Over in the House, 70 Democrats, a third of their party's caucus, did vote "aye" to such a proposal: a substitute amendment expressing support for an exclusively "diplomatic" solution. But nearly twice that many House Democrats directly rejected this diplomacy option. And an even larger number of them cast approving votes for the "Spratt amendment," which blessed near-term U.S. military participation in a renewed U.N. disarmament campaign--and held open the possibility of unilateral American force should such a campaign be thwarted or fail to materialize.

Here things get tricky, though. The Spratt amendment, like the "Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act" introduced by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin in the Senate, was a dodge--cowardice all over again. Both measures encouraged the U.N. to authorize and sponsor an armed, forceful effort against Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, thereby implying that such an effort is urgently required. At the same time, neither proposal would have authorized unilateral American action, except in the event an "imminent" Iraqi threat should arise, presumably against the continental United States. Which implies no special urgency whatsoever. Democratic votes for the Spratt and Levin amendments, in other words, were Democratic votes for nothing in particular. That a majority of House Democrats came out this way (and voted against the relatively unrestricted use-of-force resolution that eventually passed) is no surprise. But it's a serious disappointment, just the same.

We note, however, that a fair number of veteran House Democrats who 11 years ago voted "no" to the first President Bush's Persian Gulf War--some 15 in all, minority leader Dick Gephardt among them--have switched their votes to "aye." Gephardt, indeed, unambiguously calls his 1991 vote a "mistake." We note, as well, and are happy to applaud the fact, that sentiment like Gephardt's, though not so candidly acknowledged, seems almost commonplace in the Democratic Senate. A clear majority of Democratic senators refused to endorse Carl Levin's "Multilateral Use of Force Authorization Act," as it happens. An even larger majority of them--29 of 50, including 12 who'd voted "no" in 1991--wound up supporting the final bill.

On balance, we call this progress.

And yet. One congressional debate, and the split-decision vote that follows it, are hardly an adequate basis on which to cast aside decades-old and well-justified doubts about the Democratic party as a dependable partner in the formulation of grown-up national security policy. None are so perfectly reptilian as Saddam Hussein, but the global landscape remains strewn with copperhead-snake regimes and other such outlaws--and still it is rare to find a congressional Democrat, like Sen. Zell Miller, who unhesitatingly and enthusiastically picks up a hoe to kill them. Even where Saddam is concerned, the Democratic party's backbone will be tested many times over the next few months. Sometime soon, the U.N. Security Council will speak its piece on Iraq, or fail to, and the United States will have to decide how best to proceed. If and when it comes to war, there will be casualties--and an Arab-world reaction, and other, unforeseeable but surely comparable challenges--and the United States will have to persevere. Meantime, here at home, no doubt the Democratic party will be sorely, constantly tempted to turn its attention to friendlier and more familiar issues than war and peace.

It would be best if they didn't. The country deserves, and at the moment very much needs, to have both major parties, not just the Republican one, engaged full-time--and unflinchingly--in a life-or-death international snake hunt.

--David Tell, for the Editors