(Mostly) Wrong Again

As infuriatingly as ever, liberal and Democratic hawks are out peddling a new round of admonitions against us America-hating, intellectually incoherent, abject pacifists. We may have been right to oppose the war in Iraq, but being right can be overrated; the war has been a disaster, yes, but far greater disaster may loom if we don't escalate the war that has been a disaster; and so on. The material -- still -- writes itself.

This is really too much. The great, and inexcusable, fallacy at the center of many of these reprimands is the argument, usually implicit but occasionally not, that if we lose the war, it will somehow be the doves' fault for having opposed it. To which one must respond with a thousand, a million, 1.27 trillion (one estimated cost of the war) no's: If we lose the war, it will simply and obviously be the fault of the people who prosecuted it -- who decided in the first place that it was a necessary part of the fight against terrorism; who twisted intelligence to make majority public support (and thus the war itself) possible; who ignored the advice of their own generals about the troop levels needed for victory; and who then botched it beyond comprehension. Last I checked, neither Ted Kennedy nor the Times editorial board nor anyone else of their stripe did any of those things.

Similarly -- and this one is even more infuriating -- there is an argument that goes something like this: If we Iraq war opponents have our way in the future, American will never spend either blood or treasure in any sort of intervention, even one with the most humanitarian face. This case is often put anecdotally, as in, “We'll miss the next Bosnia,” or, more piquantly, “We'll miss the next Darfur.”

Again, this weak serve is easily smashed back across the net. We've already missed the next Darfur, pal. It was … Darfur. And the United States didn't fail to act in Darfur because of liberal opponents of the Iraq adventure. We failed to act because of the people in charge of our government, people who could have made a decision to proceed in a timely way to staunch the genocide there but did not because they were obsessed about Iraq.

Wherever you live in America, you have probably driven past, or perhaps you even attend, a house of worship with a large banner advertising “A Call to Conscience” and challenging the passerby to give a moment's thought to the Darfur crisis. Question: Who is it who is concerned enough to be sure that sympathetic churches and synagogues announce this devotion on their front lawns? If the liberal hawks' argument is correct, it can't possibly be liberal doves, because we counsel inaction, right? Well, consult the Web address at the bottom of these banners and check out the executive committee: It is populated by such visionary Wolfowitzian organizations as Amnesty International, Citizens for Global Solutions, the American Jewish World Service, and the NAACP (a small number of conservative-leaning evangelical groups are sprinkled in). These member groups undoubtedly have mixed views on the specific question of possible military intervention, but it cannot be said in any conceivable way that the left hasn't been concerned about Darfur.

The liberal hawks' j'accuse's just don't hold up, at least with regard to the large majority of mainstream liberal Iraq war opponents. However: I do think their view that a U.S. defeat in Iraq would carry incalculable ramifications is sincerely held. More than that, I can't help suspecting that it might not be completely wrong, either.

None of us can really know. It's possible, as some withdrawal proponents say, that our presence there is the hindrance to Iraqis actually reaching political accommodations to settle their divisions, and that once we're out, they'll all start taking more responsibility for their country. It's also possible that our presence, inadequate and inflammatory as it is, is the only thing holding the Shia and the Sunnis back from all-out civil war (and Iran from even greater influence in Iraq, which is a problem liberals must take very, very seriously). Both outcomes are possible, and no one really knows. So I distrust certainty on this question from both sides. Which brings me to John Edwards.

Edwards, Lord knows, isn't the first presidential candidate to pander to a party's base. And in a strategic sense, his robust call for an immediate start to withdrawal Monday at Riverside Church is good politics, since Hillary Clinton occupies the centrist slot and Barack Obama will likely end up somewhere in between that position and the base's.

But Edwards needs to do a lot more on the foreign policy front than position himself. He gave a pretty good speech last April in Brussels, which touched on nuclear proliferation and NATO expansion and global poverty and other issues (and which, liberal hawks should note, endorsed NATO military actions in Bosnia and Kosovo). Now that he's an announced candidate and people are paying more attention, he needs to outline his views in larger philosophical and historical terms and address the questions that liberals have been wrestling with: when and how to promote democracy, how to balance national interest with moral imperative, the crucial question of whether terrorists are motivated by hatred of Western culture or by specific actions and circumstances, and so on. He can get votes in Iowa by thumping his chest about withdrawal. But he probably can't become president, and certainly can't lead the free world in the way it needs to be led, unless he addresses these questions in a more profound way than he has.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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