Some lefties have dared hope that Sheehans vigil will snowball into a widespread peace movement that will compel an American withdrawal from Iraq, a triumph of inarticulate moral clarity à la Amazing Grace and Chuck. I surely sympathize with holders of such hope; one of the most dismaying effects of the 2004 election was the false impression that Bush opponents were in the gross minority, and it would sure be nice to feel a rush of righteous solidarity.
It would also be nice to hope for something positive again. For over four years now I have been of the opinion that the Bush Administration is an opportunistic cabal of kleptocrats and bullies who have studied the Atwater-Rove school of exploiting fear, rage, racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and religious bigotry to preserve and expand their political power, and who would think nothing of jeopardizing the strength of Americas reputation, the health of the American economy, or the lives of American servicemen if it meant winning another election. Before the 2004 election, I had hoped the catastrophic incompetence and malfeasance of the Bush Administration would become apparent to the American electorate, but for the sake of my country I had difficulty with how that hope might be fulfilled.
This is the fundamental dilemma of our executive war powers; once war is approved by Congress (and make no mistake: they approved this war), there is no check on the president short of electoral defeat. Certain terrible things are inevitable in war: innocent civilians will be tortured and killed; patriotic citizens will repeat and defend governmental lies; brave servicemen will suffer disabling wounds and death. Our only hope that our war aims justify such atrocities lies in the wisdom and honor of the president. Recognition of this reality, and that in 2004 a majority of American voters approved of Bushs job performance, left one feeling very cold.
Nevertheless, for two reasons I cannot indulge in the hope that the "moral authority" of Cindy Sheehan and other bereaved families will succeed in turning public opinion against the war. The first reason is one of perception. If the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq becomes primarily identified with "peaceniks," giant-puppet-protesters, and the casualty-averse, then supporters of the war will have all they need to peddle their "stab-in-the-back" theory (and dont fool yourself; theyve got it all ready to go). I know that in democracy one often has to take allies where one finds them, but some allies do more harm than good. Its to maintain this rhetorical distance that Democrats need to tread firmly but precisely.
The more fundamental reason to fear the Sheehanization of the anti-war argument is that it is bad policy. The logical conclusion of Sheehans position is that Bushs war would have been acceptable had it resulted in fewer American casualties. There were a host of conceptual flaws to the invasion of Iraq, but the risk to American servicemen was not one of them (indeed, the hyper-aggressive security policies and rules of engagement intended to minimize risk to American troops have almost certainly contributed to Iraqi discontent with the occupation). The lesson that the Bushies seem to have drawn from Vietnam is that as long as the American body count is kept low, no other rationale for war is required. Sheehans position validates that lesson. By appealing to Sheehans putative "moral authority," opponents of the war abdicate their responsibility to make a rational argument against the war. Exploiting such sentimental demagoguery has been the modus operandi for the Bushies from stem cells to 9/11 to gay marriage to Terry Schaivo, and for the left to indulge in it would be no less despicable.
So, for believers in reasoned, democratic discourse, its pretty much hopeless. Indulging in petty Schadenfreude only emphasizes that once the troops went "over the berm," there have been no good solutions. Im not even above suspecting that Rove has also provided for a foolproof exit scenario. Whats truly depressing is that, given the Bushies penchant for energizing their base by categorically opposing anything supported by Democrats, it may be our only hope.
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