Confessions of an enabler

Writing in The Nation magazine, Ari Berman has come up with a new, rather flattering label for us Democratic hawks: “the strategic class.”

According to Berman, Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton– both potential candidates for President in 2008– are the leading strategic-class Democrats, and they are supported by “enablers” in the foreign-policy establishment, the think-tanks and the media. (I suppose I’m at the very bottom of that particular food chain myself.)

Berman writes:

The prominence of party leaders like Biden and Clinton, and of a slew of other potential prowar candidates who support the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, presents the Democrats with an odd dilemma: At a time when the American people are turning against the Iraq War and favor a withdrawal of US troops, and British and American leaders are publicly discussing a partial pullback, the leading Democratic presidential candidates for ’08 are unapologetic war hawks.

To which I can only say: good for them.

I think Berman exaggerates the Democratic hawks’ grip on the party; I wish it was as strong as he suggests. And the idea that Democrats should base their position on Iraq on poll numbers in the late summer of 2005– numbers which can go up as well as down, depending on events– is a recipe not just for bad policy but for more electoral failure.

No matter how much dovish Democrats deny it, the party has a serious image problem on national security and defense. No matter how discouraged voters are about the situation in Iraq, a majority do not like Democrats who appear weak or excessively reluctant about the use of force. Of course Republicans are skilled at exaggerating this weakness and reluctance, but it’s the Democrats who leave themselves exposed to such caricatures.

It’s worth recalling that by 1972, a solid majority of Americans thought the Vietnam war was a mistake. But that wasn’t enough to convince most of them to vote for the antiwar Democratic candidate George McGovern, who carried one state to Richard Nixon’s 49. When it came to foreign policy, McGovern– a decent man– simply came across as, well, weak.

Why are we strategic-class Democrats refusing to join the clamor for a damn-the-consequences fixed withdrawal date? According to Berman:

There’s no simple answer. The insularity of Washington, pressures of careerism, fear of appearing soft and the absence of institutional alternatives all contribute to a limiting of the debate. Bill Clinton’s misguided political dictum that the public “would rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right” applies equally to the strategic class.

Then there are those of us who believe that overthrowing murderous tyrants and promoting democracy are liberal policies worthy of support (which has put us at odds with other Democrats) and worth doing right (which has put us at odds with the Bush administration).

Berman doesn’t offer much of in the way of an alternative Democratic policy on national security and defense. Instead he seems encouraged by signs of a “dissident establishment,” including the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy– “an anti-imperial umbrella of thinkers on the left, right and center.”

Looking at the coalition’s website, I get the idea “realistic” means “isolationist.” What else can I make of a sentence like this?:

While few oppose the goal of political and economic liberalization, many individuals question both the morality and the efficacy of using military force and diplomatic pressure to achieve these aims.

Even “diplomatic pressure” is too much for these folks? How about slipping polite but anonymous requests under embassy doors and running away?

Of course isolationism in its various forms is something that elements of the left, right and center have historically been able to agree on.

Berman claims that “Democrats will only prosper if they pose ‘sharp choices,’ something the strategic class has been unwilling or unable to do.”

I think Democratic hawks like Biden and Peter Beinart have offered “sharp choices” quite different from the Bush administration’s approach. Aside from simple opposition, Berman et al are not offering any serious choices at all.