Braying for deliverance: the Democratic Party’s torpor

MEmanuele Saccarelli Many progressives think of the Democratic Party as a sluggish, yet useful and trustworthy beast. This donkey, as it were, is occasionally maligned, begrudged and subject to ritual verbal lashings. But in truth, few left-leaning people can conceive of their political life without it. The pressing political tasks ahead of us, or at least the lamentations, are often presented as a matter of awakening this lethargic, well-meaning creature from its torpor.

In matters of foreign policy, this sluggishness can even appear as a blessing, for the Democratic Party is often associated with prudent, even timid behavior, and with a more or less honest concern for humanitarian values. The present war with Iraq can only serve to reinforce this impression. Many in the antiwar movement take solace in the belief that, had Gore been in office, this would not have happened.

This is a delusion. Like most delusions, it has very real negative consequences. The George W. Bush administration, though no doubt endowed with its own peculiar quirks and affectations, represents no qualitative break from Clinton’s or other Democratic Party administrations. Those who seek to oppose this politically, historically and morally indefensible war against Iraq ought to quit their wistful reminiscing and their illusory “what ifs” about the Democratic Party.

Granted, this is a habit that is hard to kick. Our political imagination is hostage to common-sense notions about the Democratic Party that find little basis in fact. Fact: In October 2002, most Democrats voted for a resolution to authorize the war against Iraq. Fact: The Democratic presidential candidates, almost to a person and including Joe Lieberman, who ran for vice president with Gore, are on record as supporting Bush’s war. Fact: On March 20, the U.S. Senate voted 99-0 in support of the war.

Yes, every so often a Daschle or two will say a few harsh words against the president, only to later support him in practice. But the Democratic opposition can only be described as episodic and opportunist. This is no mistake or accident, but is actually the result of a careful political calibration. The present function of the Democratic Party is in fact that of the lightening rod: to attract and gather the energy of political opposition only to harmlessly dissipate it. This demoralizes the antiwar movement and provides useful political cover to the left flank of the Bush administration.

When in power, moreover, the Democrats’ conduct has been no less predatory than Bush’s. Historically, the same figures who inspire warm and comforting feelings in the hearts of progressives were engaged in foreign policy maneuvers that in more or less direct fashion led to our own troubled times.

In 1963, Abdel Kassem, a nationalist leader guilty of attempting to release the grip of Western oil companies over Iraqi oil, was overthrown. This particular regime change was conducted in a more subdued manner; no endless columns of tanks, no shock and awe. A more modest CIA-sponsored palace coup did the job. As a result, the now infamous Baath Party came into power. A massacre ensued as the Baath party, diligently following a list provided by the CIA, murdered scores of opponents and undesirables. It was the venerable John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that secular saint of the Democratic Party who oversaw this operation, effectively planting the seed for today’s bloody harvest. This was no slip or exception for JFK. Responsible, among other things, for the 1961 Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro, JFK should rightfully be considered among the fiercest of cold warriors, and a worthy political ancestor to Bush’s foreign policy.

Jimmy Carter is another Democratic figure who does not get the credit he deserves as a foreign policy mastermind. Popularly portrayed as a hopeless, inept dove, it was this charming Southern planter, not Reagan, who nurtured and prepared the Afghan Mujahdeens for their now famous deeds. Conveniently presented as a spontaneous and righteous rebellion, the Afghan rebellion against the Soviets was actually carefully prepared by the Carter administration.

Then National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted in the late 1990s that the CIA engineered this rebellion long before the Soviet invasion. This is far from insignificant to our current predicament. The rise of powerful, armed Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan has had dramatic consequences. Among the recipients of Carter’s help was, of course, Osama bin Laden. Asked to assess the impact of this policy, Brzezinski rhetorically replied, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

While presumably we now know better on this score, the crucial role played by this particular Democratic president in leading to our present predicament continues to be underappreciated. Incidentally, while Bush’s pre-emptive doctrine is now trumpeted wide and far as a radical and unacceptable break, the current situation in Iraq finds resonance in the less-famous Carter doctrine. Announced in the 1980 State of the Union Address, this policy states that “An attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” These vital interests, and here at least Carter was more forthright, were due to the “overwhelming dependence of Western nations on vital oil supplies from the Middle East.”

Popular images of Clinton follow the same pattern. While it is conceded that the man could not repress certain personal urgencies, few think of Clinton as a dangerous predator in the realm of international politics. And yet the Clinton administration, having inherited expectations about prosperity and peace of the post-Cold War era, was in fact repeatedly engaged in more or less bloody military conflict – Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, Kosovo. These conflicts, to be sure, were always accompanied by the comforting mantra of humanitarianism. However, some of the same basic principles were at work in Kosovo as they are now in Iraq. It is no accident that two of the most important theoreticians and apologists of the current war against Iraq, Kenneth Pollack and Philip Bobbitt, come out of the Clinton administration.

This list of the impeccable imperialist credentials of the Democratic Party could go on: Woodrow Wilson’s colonial escapades in Central and Latin America, Carter’s praise of the Iranian Shah’s “progressive administration,” etc. This is not to suggest events would have proceeded in exactly the same way had a Democratic administration been in power. Rather, it is to point out important underlying continuities concerning the fundamental interests and objectives of U.S. foreign policy, before and after Sept. 11, 2001, and across the two major political parties. For the antiwar movement, the simple, crucial point is that illusions about the Democratic Party, while perhaps comforting in a spiritual sense, can only hamper its principled and effective development.

Emanuele Saccarelli is a doctoral candidate in

political science at the University. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]