Our troops are inside Baghdad as this issue of the YFP goes to press. But even before the military campaign began, the pacifist Left had lost the war before the War. The administration went on with its plans to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein; plans for aerial sorties over Baghdad were unperturbed by sorties of the Left’s own foot soldiers descending on Washington and other major cities in protest. There are many reasons for the Left’s utter rout in the public debate. But it is the consequences of this defeat that will have lasting, and pernicious, effects on the political landscape in this country for years to come.
The anti-war activists on the Left failed for two major, and related, reasons. First, they made themselves irrelevant in the debate by their blind – and, at times, personal – hatred for George Bush and Dick Cheney. This phenomenon, exemplified recently by Michael Moore’s apoplectic outburst at the Academy Awards ceremony about Bush stealing the 2000 presidential election, clouded the discussion of the prudence of this war. Signs seen at the many rallies in Washington and New York against the war included such intellectual gems as “Bush and Dick”, “Bush is a fascist”, and “Impeach Bush”.
Leftist distaste for George Bush sent the message that they would have opposed any policy for dealing with Iraq or, for that matter, any other policy issue supported by the President. Their criticism of the war reeked of the old “Hitler was a vegetarian” refutation of certain dietary practices. As such, they delegitimized their own cause and could not even put a dent in the American opinion polls. Even in Britain, support for the war was on a steady uptrend throughout the debate preceding military action.
Second, they traded a reasoned analysis of why war is unnecessary for mindless bumper sticker slogans. Most of the arguments against the war amounted to “War is Immoral”, “Food not Bombs”, and “Give Peace a Chance”. Yet when one thinks about these words of wisdom, one notices that they are merely generic oneliners that apply to all military conflict. Such blatant statements are unhelpful. Was American involvement in World War II immoral too? Should we have sent the Germans food instead of bombing them? Should we have attempted to appease Hitler rather than fight him? (Ok, bad example).
As Whitney Humanities Center Director, Norma Thompson, noted in her speech at the Rally to Support the Troops sponsored by the Yale College Students for Democracy, applying blanket statements like “War is Immoral” when facing evil men like Hitler or Saddam Hussein is immoral in itself. Thompson said: “If we say ‘war is immoral,’ we are saying to ruthless dictators, ‘there is nothing you can do that can make me fight you. When it comes to a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, to say ‘war is immoral’ is immoral.”
Such trite and thoughtless actions made the Left irrelevant in the public debate. The public perceived them as uwilling to face down hateful and disgusting regimes and unwilling to enforce any threats made by the “international community” – the very same entity whose will the antiwar activists claimed Bush was thwarting. And so, the Left was embarrassed. They could not even make Tony Blair – the man who many believed to be ushering in a new era of Labor domination in Britain and the death of the British Right – oppose the war, or at the very least refuse to involve Britain in the effort.
Many on the Right celebrate the anti-war Left’s embarrassing showing in the war debate. Yet, there is little to cheer, especially for the libertarians on the Right. The irrelevance of the Left and the confusion in the Democratic Party have given Bush political capital to pass nearly anything in his agenda, good or bad.
In particular, the Second PATRIOT Act is now in the administration’s back channels, waiting to reach Congress for consideration. The last PATRIOT Act included many attacks on civil liberties, such as increased detention and wire-tapping authority for the federal government. This new bill promises to bring more statist goodies for us all. When archconservatives Phyllis Shlaffly and Bob Barr are the most strident voices against such measures, you know something is wrong. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t in a surrealist nightmare when Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge cited the fact that snipers did not kill the farmer who drove his tractor into the reflecting pool on the National Mall, as evidence that the government respects civil liberties.
The anti-war Left should take the lead on such issues. Bush’s disrespect for civil liberties is one of the few relevant criticisms that could be made out during this time of war. Yet, the debacle of the Left in the war debate has damaged its credibility and significantly hindered its ability to influence policy. This means that new authority granted by the Administration to John Ashcroft and his men will pass quite easily: the American people will naturally link any opposition to the measure with the Left’s shrill, yet silly, rhetoric during the war debate. Is its opposition to the measure genuine or is it just an expression of its hatred for Bush? Are Leftists opposing these security measures because the measures really are that bad or because they would oppose any security measures? These are questions the public will and should ask.
Similarly, a strong Left is needed to keep the Administration honest in their promises of a democratic Iraq. The success of the war depends heavily on being able to establish some semblance of liberal democratic rule in Iraq after we are done dropping bombs. The Left generally recognizes the need for democracy. After all, its activists constantly broach the subject of our support of authoritarian dictators during the Cold War. The Left is vital in making sure that Bush keeps his promise of a democratic and free Iraq. Yet the Left has delegitimized its position on all matters related to our foreign policy. There is no longer a counterweight to the Bush administration on any foreign policy issue.
The harm can be seen by just taking a look at Afghanistan. While things are clearly better than under the Taliban theocracy, the country is still largely run by warlords. We have done little to stabilize the political situation in that country, and little has been heard from the Left or the Democratic Party. Though a few whimpers could be made out during the last election, no concerted and coherent effort was made to indict the Bush Administration on this issue. The few objections were summarily dismissed because the activists were so busy inventing conspiracy theories about control over gas pipelines and American imperialism in Afghanistan.The message to the Left is clear: do not make yourselves irrelevant. Dump the generic rhetoric and slogans and focus on concrete issues. Make concrete arguments and be willing to compromise. The Right needs you to keep its foreign and homeland security policy sane.
Yevgeny Vilensky is Editor-in-Chief.