The Anti-War Democrats

They’re naive and clumsy. Is that so wrong?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

The Patriotism Police arrested two new enemy combatants this week: Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., and Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. The crime: A Live From Baghdad appearance on ABC’s This Week, during which McDermott said he believed President Bush “would mislead the American people” on the subject of war with Iraq, and Bonior urged the Bush administration not to interfere with upcoming United Nations weapons inspections. The verdict: Death, or something worse. Senate Minority Whip Don Nickles proclaimed the two Democrats were “taking Saddam Hussein’s lines” and sounding “somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government.” George Will called McDermott’s interview “the most disgraceful performance abroad by an American official in my lifetime, something not exampled since Jane Fonda sat on the antiaircraft gun in Hanoi to be photographed.” Will went further in his Washington Post column, calling McDermott and Bonior “American collaborators” with Saddam Hussein. On his Weblog, Andrew Sullivan asked, “Whose side are they on?” and wrote that McDermott was “vile” and “perilously close to treason.”

Even in the traitor-hunting atmosphere that’s persisted in the United States since 9/11, the ferocity of these outbursts was surprising. This is the type of scorn usually reserved for the John Walker Lindhs of the world. Bonior and McDermott are not Cynthia McKinney, insinuating that President Bush had advance knowledge of the deaths of 3,000 people, or even Jimmy Carter, surreptitiously undermining the sitting president’s foreign policy. They simply gave voice to the opinions of a wide swath of the American people: Politicians lie, and disarming Saddam Hussein is preferable to war.

The first of those two propositions is indistinguishable from David Broder’s sentiments in this morning’s Washington Post, in which he advises Americans to watch what President Bush does, “not what he says.” Shall we string up the Dean, too? As for the second, it’s the Bush administration’s official position. As President Bush said of Saddam yesterday, “All of us recognize the military option is not the first choice, but disarming him is.” Of course, the president may have been confused. He also keeps saying that deposing Saddam is the U.S. policy. But that mixed message buttresses McDermott’s point about the shifting rationales for war. The most substantive distinction between the president’s policy and the supposedly seditious Democrats’ proposal is that Bonior and McDermott don’t believe a new U.N. Security Council resolution will be necessary to do the job. In all likelihood, that’s naive. Armed escorts, at the very least, will probably be necessary for weapons inspectors to conduct the “unrestricted and unconditional inspections” that everyone from Bonior to Bush supports. But gullibility isn’t treasonous.

It is, however, sadly familiar. Bonior and McDermott’s trip to Iraq (they were accompanied by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif.) made it easy for their pro-war opponents to cast them as Jesse Jacksons, flying off for photo-ops with foreign thugs. When it comes to foreign policy, Democrats have a reputation as credulous stooges whose reflexive anti-war leanings make them willing dupes for murderous dictators. That didn’t happen in this case (at least not yet), but the charge is so effective that it doesn’t matter whether it’s true. Bonior and McDermott may not have played into Saddam’s hands, but they did play into the GOP’s.

Also customary is anti-war Democrats’ tendency to cry “Vietnam” and “quagmire.” (They do it about as regularly as neocons declare that every war will be another Gulf War: virtually bloodless, at least for America.) Of this, McDermott is particularly guilty. He criticized the early airstrikes in Afghanistan last October, raising the specter of the war in which he served as a Navy psychiatrist at Long Beach Naval Station: “There are some eerie parallels that trouble me.” McDermott has repeated similar fears during the buildup to war with Iraq.

At times, the opposition to war from the Party That Cries Vietnam appears to stem more from ‘60s and ‘70s nostalgia than from moral or political beliefs. The “Iraq Working Group” of about 40 Democrats in the House conducts its business with “echoes of the 1960s,” according to CQ Weekly, including “prayer vigils, teach-in policy forums,” and a speech late last month from former California Congressman Ronald V. Dellums, “the onetime Berkeley lawmaker whose opposition to the Southeast Asia conflict helped propel him to the House.” It sounds like the anti-war counterpart to the World Bank and IMF protests—more about show than substance, about having a grand old time recreating the great protests of the past.

At least Bonior and McDermott aren’t guilty of that. Their long-standing anti-war sentiments are rooted in their devout Christianity (Bonior the classic Catholic liberal, McDermott a former evangelical missionary). At worst, they’re guilty of bad politics. Which is actually somewhat refreshing. If Maureen Dowd is to be believed, Hillary Clinton is keeping her private doubts about an Iraq war to herself in order to preserve her “political viability” in the 2008 presidential race. She’s not the only Democrat with similar motives. Say what you will about Bonior and McDermott—they’re naive, they’re too trusting of an evil tyrant, their decision to condemn Bush from a foreign land was ill-timed and foolish. All that is true. But at least they’re sincere. And at least they’re not silent.