Fighting Words

Firehouse Rot

John Kerry’s cheapest shot.

Allowance made for choreography, stagecraft, and all the rest of it, there need be no doubt that the Democrats in Boston sincerely wish to “project” the idea of compassion for the underdog, inclusiveness in general, and perhaps above all a degree of care and measure in foreign policy. The AIDS victim in South Africa, or the Bangladeshi woman hoping for a new well: These are sufferers and strugglers who would get genuine applause whether it was Barack Obama mentioning them or not. Of course we understand that our future is bound up with theirs.

But in the last few weeks I have been registering one of the sourest and nastiest and cheapest notes to have been struck for some time. In a recent article about anti-Bush volunteers going door-to-door in Pennsylvania, often made up of campaigners from the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU—one of the country’s largest labor unions—the New York Times cited a leaflet they were distributing, which said that the president was spending money in Iraq that could be better used at home. The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, recently made the same point, proclaiming repeatedly that the Bay Area was being starved of funds that were being showered on Iraqis. (He obviously doesn’t remember the line of his city’s most famous columnist, the late Herb Caen, who referred to San Francisco as “Baghdad by the Bay.”) These are only two public instances of what’s become quite a general whispering campaign. And then on Thursday night, Sen. Kerry quite needlessly proposed a contradiction between “opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.” Talk about a false alternative. To borrow the current sappy language of “making us safer”: Who would feel more secure if they knew that we weren’t spending any tax dollars on Iraqi firehouses?

There is something absolutely charmless and self-regarding about this pitch, and I wish I could hear a senior Democrat disowning it. It is no better, in point of its domestic tone and appeal, than the rumor of the welfare mother stopping her Cadillac to get vodka on food stamps. In point of its international implications, it also suggests the most vulgar form of isolationism, not to say insularity.

And there’s something more. It reveals a real element of bad faith on the part of many liberals and leftists. Think of the programs that many of them regard as wasteful and extravagant: the missile-defense system, for example (less than useless in the battle against terrorism) or the so-called “war on drugs” (ditto). But the mention of either of these would involve an argument over principle, and the risk of controversy. So, why not just say that the Republicans are squandering “our” money on a bunch of foreigners?

The further implication is that this is a zero-sum game, and that a dollar spent in Iraq is a dollar not spent on domestic needs. In other words, that this hospital or school in New Jersey or Montana would now be fully funded if it wasn’t for a crowd of Arab and Kurdish panhandlers. Could anything be more short-sighted than that? Have we not learned that failed states turn into rogue states, and then export their rage and misery? Would we not prosper ourselves—if the question has to be stated in this way—if the Iraqi economy recuperated to the point where it could become a serious trading partner?

This common-sense or self-interested objection doesn’t exhaust the argument. A few years ago, many of the same liberals and leftists were quoting improbable if not impossible numbers of dead Iraqi children, murdered by the international sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein. Even at its most propagandistic, this contained an important moral point: Iraqi civilians were suffering for the sins of their dictatorship (and from the lavish corruption of the U.N. supervision of the “oil-for-food” program). OK, then, we’ll remove the regime and lift the sanctions. Happy now? Not at all! It turns out that 1) the Saddam regime was only a threat invented by neo-cons and that 2) we don’t owe the Iraqi people a thing. Also, we could use the money ourselves.

This would mean that all the protest about dead and malnourished Iraqi infants was all for show. Surely that can’t be right? Whatever you think about the twists and turns of U.S. policy toward Baghdad in the last three decades, there can be no doubt of any kind that we have collectively incurred a huge responsibility there, much of it political but a good deal of it purely humanitarian. To demand that American funds be cut off or diverted, just as the country is fighting to rebuild and struggling toward a form of elections, is unconscionable from any standpoint.

The worst thing about John Kerry’s parochial line on the firehouses was the applause it got, with cameras even focusing on firefighter union jackets adorned with Kerry-Edwards buttons. The great thing about firefighters is usually their solidarity: They will send impressive delegations to the funerals of their fellows not just in other cities but in other countries, too. Solidarity and internationalism, indeed, used to be the cement of the democratic Left. So, do we understand the nominee correctly? Is he telling us that Iraqi firefighters are parasites sucking on the American tit, and that they don’t deserve the supportive brotherhood that used to be the proudest signature of the labor movement? And why is Kerry so keen on attracting our “allies” to share the burden in Iraq—or to “reduce the cost to American taxpayers,” as he inelegantly put it—if not to help put out the fire that might otherwise consume more than a point in the budget?