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Thursday, September 08, 2005 | While San Diegans reflect on the political hurricane that ravaged local politics as thoroughly as Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, we can’t ignore the broad failure of our national leaders. Locally, we may be without a mayor, have city council members facing jail and a member of Congress exposed as a flimflam man, but the ineptitude of national government is a far more damaging condemnation of our political system.
We are in the third year of a failed war in Iraq. In poll after poll, national support for that war and the president who launched it declines into the forties and even thirties, but in Washington there is not even a soupçon of political will to change course – even as the war’s costs at home become clearer, for example in the Bush Administration’s drastic cuts in flood control and hurricane protection funding for New Orleans. It is as though the political head has been cut off from the body, and those people serving in national office have lost all contact with the people who elected them.
Republicans will never change course, for it is their war and their mistakes that have gotten us into the mess, but Democrats can’t escape blame. Though the people’s desire to “stay the course” in a losing situation is no greater today than it was in Vietnam, opposition party leadership, unlike in Vietnam, refuses to take on a reckless president.
We owe it to the Americans who have fallen, says Bush, to stay in Iraq until the mission (whatever it is) is accomplished. That formula, one sees, is a recipe for never leaving Iraq, for the longer we stay the more Americans will have fallen. We have now heard from the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, that even if U.S. ground troops eventually leave Iraq (not at all certain), the Air Force will remain.
That, I believe, is the first time those responsible for this failed war have stated explicitly what Bush has always implied: that Iraq is to be made into a permanent satellite of the United States as a means of deleting the U.S. military presence from Saudi Arabia. The Iraqis obviously have something to say about that idea, and they say it daily with their growing hostility to the U.S. presence and any Iraqi complicity in it.
During the Vietnam War, political leaders stepped forward with alternative policies under both Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Where are the anti-war leaders of today? In 1968, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, both Democrats, ran for president on anti-war platforms, forcing Democrat Johnson out of the race. Kennedy became the front-runner following his win in the California primary.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination after Kennedy’s murder and eventually came out against the war, but Humphrey was too compromised by his partnership with Johnson to beat Nixon, who won the election after letting the rumor spread that he had a “secret plan” for ending the war in Vietnam.
Nixon fooled the people with his “secret plan,” and four years later, with war still raging, did it again on the eve of the 1972 election with a claim that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. In reality, peace was nowhere close to at hand, but it was enough to defeat anti-war Democrat George McGovern. One of Nixon’s first actions after his re-election was the Christmas bombing of Hanoi that killed some 5,000 civilians in a futile attempt to persuade the Vietnamese to stop fighting against the U.S. presence in Vietnam.
Where are today’s Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, J.W. Fulbright, political leaders willing to campaign on principle against failed presidents of either party? Where is today’s George Ball, the undersecretary of state who bombarded Johnson for four years with memos stating, “We cannot win, Mr. President. The war will be long and protracted.” The only similarity between then and now is in watching some leading war architects (the Bundy brothers and McNamara under Johnson; Wolfowitz, Powell and Feith under Bush) jump ship while war still rages to land better paying civilian jobs.
Democratic Party leaders are as tainted by Iraq as Bush. If Bush is wrong about Iraq it is because he is ignorant, inept and dishonest. Democratic Party leaders are wrong because they are hypocrites. John Kerry didn’t really run on an anti-war platform last year, he ran on a “we made some mistakes in invading Iraq” platform. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, two Democrats ready to run for president in 2008, are even more hawkish than Kerry on Iraq. Clinton and Biden don’t believe in Bush’s war any more than Kerry did, but, like Kerry, are afraid to come out and say it. Like Bush, strong and wrong.
Democrat leaders who spoke out loudest against Iraq last year were either ones who weren’t running, like Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer and Robert Byrd; or ones, like Howard Dean, new enough to politics to think they could speak the truth and reflect the will of the party about a dreadful national mistake.
Imagine that: In this nation where candidates tend to be blow-dried, botoxed, powdered, test-marketed and focus-grouped, Dean gave us a dose of honest principle and exuberance and it proved too much for the party. The Party establishment, opposing the will of the grass roots, even tried to keep Dean from being elected party leader this year because he was too loudly principled – the same charge leveled in other times against Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Rooselvelt.
We’ve hit a political nadir in our country, and the horrible destruction of New Orleans looks likes nature’s vengeance on a nation already drowning in hubris, sin and blunder. Bush was in San Diego speechifying as Katrina struck. Ever the wrong man in the wrong place with the wrong words at the wrong time.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Most recently, he was a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.