Sunday, March 20, 2005

History, Victors, and Democrats

Democrats will have scored a major victory if, as most observers expect, they succeed in completely blocking Bush’s risky and wrongheaded Social Security reform package this year. While commentators like David Brooks have made ludicrous appeals for a compromise, the Democrats rightfully realize that any negotiations on Social Security will be a victory for the Republicans. A system with individual accounts, even as an add-on, will simply be used as a wedge for privatization later on.

As heartening as it has been to see the Democrats adopt a strong and unified position on the domestic front, I worry that they are simultaneously losing the long-term battle over foreign policy and America’s role in the world. In this case, outright obstructionism is not the best strategy, and will hurt the Party in the long run. Recent events in the Middle East have, fairly or not, led to a partial rehabilitation of the neoconservative vision of a “wave of democracy” across the Middle East (see the front pages of the major papers over the last few weeks if you don’t believe me). The amazing developments in Lebanon and the surprising call for freer elections in Egypt have created (particularly when analyzed alongside the recent Palestinian and Iraqi elections) a sense of optimism in a region that has been long comfortable in its cynicism. (Leave the probably meaningless local elections in Saudi Arabia aside for the time being.)

Now, liberal anti-war types are ready with their all too reasonable explanations for all of these events, none of which give Bush any credit, and all of which seem to assume that these events would have happened whether we had invaded Iraq or not. A fun variation on this line of argument is the claim that these events are actually non-stories or even bad for the United States in the long term. And rather than dismiss those concerns as silly fantasy, I’ll concede that it is nearly impossible to trace the direct impact of the War in Iraq to recent events. As a supporter of the war and optimist for democratic change in the region however, I will say that it is also difficult to imagine these changes happening without the U.S. invasion in Iraq.

The point is, even if you think the War in Iraq should be entirely discredited because of the shifting rationales, or if you tell yourself that Bush got lucky with Arafat’s death, or if you are absolutely positive that none of the hundreds of thousands of protestors in Beirut saw any of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Iraqi elections, it won’t really matter to anyone in 10 years. Bush will ultimately get credit if Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq are democracies a generation from now and the Republican Party will have yet another powerful talking point to convince Americans that they are tough on foreign affairs, and can even promote democracy while they’re at it. By augmenting their existing “tough-guy” persona and stealing the mantle of idealism from the Democrats, the GOP will find it even easier to dominate the political arena, especially during times of international crisis. The sad part is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Democrats, for their part, are stuck in a no-win situation, even though the left wing hasn’t realized it yet. Hawkish centrists like Bayh, Lieberman, and Biden will try to present a strong and rational voice, but that would require giving Bush some credit for his grandiose visions of democracy, and the base of the party just won’t let that happen. The liberal wing of the party fashions themselves as purveyors of freedom and justice in the world, and they have a historical record of activism to prove it. But the current situation presents a challenge. Their hatred of Bush so dominates that they must either trivialize democratic winds in the Middle East or argue fantastically that all of this would have happened anyway. The first strategy would be a sad departure from their traditional positions and also wouldn’t be very convincing. Democrats not very good foreign policy realists, and it shows. The 2nd strategy might make sense, but a democratic Middle East will drown out all of these nitpicking explanations 10 years from now, just as the claim that Reagan won the Cold War goes largely unchallenged today.

There is a hard and practical implication here for Democrats. History will written by the Republicans if they remain in power, and most non-partisan voters will simply accept that Bush’s policies had some impact, just as they attributed economic growth to Clinton’s policies. Whether Democrats are right or not, a democratic Middle East will be a victory for Bush’s legacy and future Republican leaders, and a loss for Democrats.

I still don’t think it’s too late for Democrats to avoid this fate, but I don’t expect any changes in their strategy. It would be nice to say the Democrats take an aggressive position on Iran, and give Bush credit for his progress in the Middle East even while reminding him of the progress yet to be made. Democrats could also fight to bring more attention to Darfur and homeland security, especially by bringing up the easy access terror suspects have to fire arms.

But if I know the hardcore partisans of the Democratic Party well enough, they will probably be content to rehash the case against the War in Iraq, dismiss any progress in the region (including free elections), and hope out loud that it all spirals downward soon. My main point is that even if the Democrats are right on the facts, history will be written in Bush’s favor if democracy takes hold in the region, mostly because he took a huge risk and had a positive vision, while the Democrats chose to allow their enmity towards the President cloud their better judgment and erode the idealism they had always championed themselves.



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