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Who is "Serious" About Terrorism?

Can someone explain what Senator Lieberman could possibly mean when he says the following:

“I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us — more evil, or as evil, as Nazism and probably more dangerous than the Soviet Communists we fought during the long Cold War,” Mr. Lieberman said.

First, there’s no antecedent to the word "threat" or "enemy" so we have no idea what threat he’s referring to. Is it al-Qaeda alone? Al-Qaeda plus Hezbollah and Hamas, plus Syria and Ahmadinejad? Or that thing out there that Little Green Footballs the President now calls "Islamic fascists"?

Who knows. But under any possible definition of "threat" or "enemy" it cannot possibly be as dangerous than the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War, with multiple thermonuclear devices pointed at every one of our cities and towns. And, I don’t know exactly how to score "evilness," but not much matches Hitler. I suppose in some way bin Laden and Zawahiri’s hearts may be as filled with evil as Hitler’s or Stalin’s, but they don’t have the SS and Luftwaffe at their disposal. Maybe they would send us all to concentration camps if they controlled half of Europe, but thankfully, they live in caves and can’t use the phone. Is Ahmadinejad "more evil, or as evil" as Hitler? Maybe the potential is there, with his holocaust denial and all that, but so far it’s mostly talk.

I’m sorry, but this is just a deranged, or at best deeply confused and manic, thing to say. It shows a lack of perspective and reality and responsibility, even in its lack of clarity about what exactly the threat is and how to defeat it. Why does anyone accept that this kind of blather can be considered taking the threat more "seriously"? It’s not. It’s hugely unserious in its trivialization of the great moral challenges of the Twentieth Century and it’s bald politicization of the current challenge.

And I’m interested in examples -- I know there are people from Paul Berman to the Malkin wing of the right blogosphere who like to say that Islamic extremists are sort of like fascism, or there’s a debate going on now on National Review Online about whether "Islamo-Nazi" is a better word than Islamofascist. But is there anyone else who has used that framework: "more dangerous than the Soviet Communists" or "more evil, or as evil, as Nazism."??

This is a man who has become so deeply unserious that I don’t think he should be a U.S. Senator, from either party.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 11, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (19)

Vietnam Analogies Everywhere!

The Vietnam War was a long one, so those devoted to finding exact historical parallels can usually find something to fit into their proof that the nomination of Ned Lamont is a disaster for Democrats.

Jacob Weisberg mines 1972, as usual: "In 1972, the Democrats repudiated their flawed Cold Warriors and chose as their standard-bearer a naive and honorable anti-war idealist...In a similar way, the 2006 Connecticut primary points to the growing influence within the party of leftists unmoved by the fight against global jihad."

(Earlier in the piece, Weisberg makes clear that the Cold Warrior "repudiated" in 1972 was Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. I’m going to make it my special mission to knock this one down as often as I have to: Scoop Jackson wasn’t "repudiated" or robbed of something legitimately his. He just, like dozens of Senatorial would-be-presidents before and since simply Didn’t Get Any Votes. He’s not a martyr, just a guy who No One Voted For. A lot like Joe Lieberman in fact, although Saint Scoop’s performance in 1972 fell short even of Joe’s famous "three-way tie for third place." -- more conventionally known as "fifth place.")

Like McGovern’s naively isolationist supporters, who didn’t appreciate the actual Communist threat, Weisberg says that Lamont supporters and other anti-war Dems "see Iraq purely as a symptom of a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11, as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict."

I think it’s fair to call Vietnam a "tragic misstep" within a larger Cold War conflict, and probably fair to say that some McGovernites let the tragedy of Vietnam blind them to the obligations of American strength in the postwar conflict.

But is Iraq really a "tragic misstep in a bigger conflict"? As opposed to "a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11"? Read the history of Vietnam, and it’s hard not to be somewhat sympathetic -- within the limits of what men like McNamara knew and assumed, you can see how each little step made sense to them at the moment, and before you know it, you’ve got 50,000 dead and no way out. But Iraq is not a "misstep" in the same way, or series of missteps. It was a very considered, aggressively sold choice to pursue a war that had little to with "the fight against global jihad," for reasons that we may never fully understand. It is a perfectly reasonable position to support ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq as quickly as possible, while strongly advocating the sort of engagement in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere that would be part of "the fight against global jihad," if you want to put it that way. As Kevin Drum pointed outthe other day, General Clark’s proposal on this from a couple years ago was good, so are any number of others, including Peter Beinart’s. Yes, we should make full use of American power -- economic, cultural, military, and the power of example.

The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, did a wonderful thing this morning: They realized that the history of Dems and Vietnam is not reducible to 1972. The Lamont victory is not the McGovern nomination, but "arguably the most important victory for the American left since the Watergate rout of 1974." YES! That’s the metaphor we’re looking for: 75 new Democrats elected to the House, many of them from Republican districts which they held for many years, a group of serious, hard-working non-extremists like John Murtha, George Miller, and Chris Dodd.

Ah but that’s where all the trouble began: "If Democrats retake Congress, we will be back where we were in Vietnam circa 1975. Early that year the Congressional left blocked funds for our allies in the government of South Vietnam...within weeks... the last American helicopters were leaving Saigon [and] the Soviet Union was clearly emboldened to assert itself via proxies from Afghanistan to Central America."

The stab-in-the-back theory! Ah, if only we had just stuck it out for a few more years in Vietnam.

But I think the Journal is right. This is more like 1974 than 1972. And 2008 will be even more so. In 1974/75, everyone understood that U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a decade after Tonkin, had to end. That’s where we are with Iraq, and the only people who don’t seem ready to be part of figuring out how to end it are George Bush, Joe Lieberman and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But folks like Weisberg, who see everything as 1972 all over again, aren’t making it any easier to get to that point.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 10, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (6)

A Last Few Words on Connecticut

Some random thoughts in the closing days:

First, is there a better expression of what I called “checklist liberalism” than Lieberman’s I-gave-at-the-office answer to George Stephanopoulos this morning, complete with the Rumsfeldian question-answer format?:

Lieberman: “Did I keep in touch with Democrats? You bet I did….I have the support of most of the key inner constituencies, advocacy groups within the Democratic Party : the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, Defenders of Wildlife, Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, Planned Parenthood PAC. They wouldn’t support me if I lost touch with them.”

Second, I want to comment on some bits of Dan Balz’s article, billed on the Washington Post website as “What A Lieberman Loss Would Mean.” Balz’s unsurprising argument is that if Lieberman loses, it will increase the importance of the Iraq War in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and advantage candidates like Al Gore whose opposition has been stronger.

In contrast, Balz says, “many party moderates say they see worrisome parallels to what happened to the Democrats during Vietnam, when they opposed an unpopular war but paid a price politically for years after because of a perception the party was too dovish on national security.

“‘Candidates know they cannot appease [antiwar] activists if they are going to run winning national campaigns,’ said Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute.”

Two comments on this: First, the 2008 primaries are seventeen months away. Balz projects a straight line from the way the issue breaks today to that point. And seems to take it for granted that we’ll still be embroiled in Iraq. But consider that at the time of the 2004 primaries, the war was less than one year old! By the time of the first primary votes in 2008, it will be almost five years of war. We’re now in the fourth year of the war; does anyone seriously think that by the sixth, absent some enormous change, that “antiwar activists” won’t be the vast majority of people? If the issue - the war - remains unchanged, the politics of it cannot remain unchanged.

This is why I’ve never been worried in the past about the “split” on Iraq among Democrats. I thought that by the time we got within sight of the 2008 primaries, either something dramatic would have happened to change things, or it would become completely obvious to everyone that withdrawal on a timetable was the only option. With David Broder and Tom Friedman now in the “cut and run” camp, with Senator Clinton standing up to Rumsfeld, that moment has almost come. And while the Lamont challenge may accelerate it somewhat among the more cautious politicians, it’s the reality, the fact that we are now in the middle of someone else’s civil war, that is driving everyone else to that consensus.

Also, I’m really tired of the Vietnam/Democrats analogy, in which the entire political history of Vietnam is reduced to McGovern’s loss in 1972. The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because - let’s not be afraid to admit it -- Democrats started that war. Opposition to the war didn’t unify or define the party, it divided it. Nixon won the 1968 election because Humphrey was associated with the war, couldn’t split with LBJ, and Nixon promised - dishonestly -- to end it. The national security gap for Democrats first appeared in polls in 1967-68, because LBJ was held responsible for the war itself, not because they were associated with antiwar activists. (See this paper from the Truman Project for more.) And in the election after 1972, the 75+ Democrats who won congressional seats were overwhelmingly anti-war, a transforming fresh spirit in politics that dominated Congress for the next two decades. We can only hope that a new class of legislators elected on a wave of revulsion at the war and at corruption will be as skilled and resilient.

Third, I’ve been predicting for weeks that the Lieberman independent bid would amount to nothing, and that seems to now be the conventional wisdom, especially after Senator Frank Lautenberg suggested that if he did not come within 10 points of Lamont, he should drop the Party of One bid.

Politicians can be superficially supportive but also cruelly contemptuous toward colleagues who can’t take care of their own business. I think that some of the establishment figures have to be noticing that not only did Lieberman put himself in this situation, but he did absolutely nothing, at any point, to get himself out of it. From attacking Lamont, acting peevish and entitled, declaring the independent bid, refusing to say anything that would show any difference between his view of Iraq and Bush’s (even with George Stephanopoulos this morning he was mouthing the WH line that the only threat to a unified, stable Iraq was “the terrorists”), to finally trying a clumsy imitation of Lamont’s enthusiastic rallies, the only result of which was that the face of his campaign for a day was a loudmouth DC lobbyist who looked like an understudy for the “Billionaires for Bush” comedy troupe, Lieberman didn’t make one right move in six months. He doesn’t even seem to realize that if he denounces his opponent for voting with Republicans and calls him “center-right,” he can’t credibly also say, “That’s something that separates me from my opponent - I don’t hate Republicans.”

I was going to end this post with some attempt to figure out why it happened, but all explanation - such as that he doesn’t quite understand how politics has changed since the 1990s - seems inadequate to the magnitude of the flame-out. I think it’s possible that after the primary, unleashed from the obligation of being a checklist Democrat, Lieberman may emerge as a very, very conservative figure, one of those real neoconservatives (in the older sense of the word) whose main politics is to obsess over and recoil at what they see as the excesses of the left. Michael Barone is a good example of such a figure, and that way madness lies. I’m just speculating, but if that does occur, we’ll understand why he couldn’t run a plausible Democratic campaign in 2006: he couldn’t bring himself to.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 7, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (11)