Debating the War
Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and international relations scholar who has publicly opposed the Iraq War for years recently lost his son to that war. In addition to the horrible grief that a father has to deal with the death a son, he has been accused of contributing to that outcome because his public opposition to the war “provided aid and comfort to the enemy.”
He rightly and quickly dismisses such talk as antithetical to the very notion of a free society. Indeed, though I went from an opponent of going to war in 2002 to a reluctant supporter by early 2003 and still think sticking it out is the least bad policy option, I welcome thoughtful opposition. Major public policy initiatives, especially those where life and death are quite literally at stake, should be under constant scrutiny and debate.
The truly poignant part of Bacevich’s essay, though, is his sense that all his own efforts have been for nothing.
Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others — teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks — to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.
Indeed, that’s the hope of the public intellectual.
This, I can now see, was an illusion.
The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as “the will of the people.”
While I can understand his frustrations, this misunderstands the very essence of our Republic.
First, midterm elections are seldom unambiguous; the last one certainly wasn’t. We hold 435 separate contests for the House of Representatives and 33 or so separate contests for the Senate, each involving many variables unique to their respective districts, states, and candidates. Yes, the growing unpopularity of the war was a major reason the Republicans did so poorly. So, too, were several scandals, campaign trail meltdowns, and several domestic policy disputes from immigration to fiscal discipline. The war alone wouldn’t have cost the GOP the House and, certainly, not the Senate which was likely one Macaca away from staying in their control.
Second, and more importantly, we have a representative government with three distinct branches. President Bush stood for re-election in November 2004 and, barring impeachment, is entitled to exercise his powers over the executive branch until January 20, 2009. Each of the House and Senate Republicans was elected in his or her own right to two and six year terms, respectively, to exercise their judgment as to the best interests of their constituents. That the majority of the relative handful of new Members who came to office as a result of the last elections disagrees with them on the war does not negate that.
Indeed, that a majority of the country now disagrees with those people about the war is largely irrelevant. The people are often wrong. Indeed, a majority supported the war at its outset and, for a short while, the enthusiasm was overwhelming. We should not be governed by the day-to-day whims of a fickle electorate that is easily swayed by the emotions of the day. That’s why we don’t govern ourselves via plebescite. Foreign policy is not “American Idol.”
This is very interesting as well:
To be fair, responsibility for the war’s continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party. After my son’s death, my state’s senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences. Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son’s wake. Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don’t blame me.
One would think that Kennedy and Kerry, who represent the most liberal state in the Union and who will be easily re-elected so long as they desire, would be free from the political game of hedging bets on an issue they claim so much passion for. But even they don’t want to be labeled as “not supporting the troops.”
Bacevich blames this on the entrenched money interests that maintain the “Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics” that “confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels” and, ultimately, “negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.” To me, it simply suggests that the public’s opposition to the war has not matured. It indicates the ambivalence that people feel about the war: They want it to be over, they think it’s unlikely we can win, but they don’t want the consequences of defeat, either. To be sure, these are gut feelings, not well-thought-out policy conclusions, but it’s enough to guide people in voting.
Ultimately, Bacevich is wrong. His voice very much matters. Ultimately, if he’s right on the war, he will prevail. Already, war moderates are jumping ship and there are plenty of signs that politicians on both sides of the aisle are looking for a way out. Come November 2008, things in Iraq will have turned around considerably or we’ll be about to elect a president who will get us out. The Democrats will surely nominate an anti-war candidate and it’s not inconceivable the Republicans will, too.
Representative democracy does not always reflect the immediate will of the people. It’s almost impossible, though, to ignore the sustained will of the majority for long.
UPDATE: Jules Crittenden believes that Bacevich has “adopted the thinking of all who despised him, and those who despise what his son did.” This is wrongheaded, in my view. Patriots, including those who have served honorably in our wars, can believe a particular war is wrong. Indeed, veterans are often at the forefront of anti-war movements, since we know all too well the high toll war brings.
Jim Henley, who has been opposed to the war from the beginning and for all the right reasons, nonetheless disagrees with Bacevich that monied interests are a significant factor in our having gone to war.