No One to Demonize

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In the absence of an antiwar movement, the American people have turned against the war in Iraq. Those two facts, I suspect, are connected.

There was a very real antiwar movement early on. In the months before, during and immediately after our invasion, hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose the intervention. Then chaos, followed by insurgency, enveloped Iraq, and the need for a constable to restore some order became indisputable. Those who had opposed the war -- this columnist included -- argued that the occupation would be less of a lightning rod if conducted by an international force under U.N. aegis. But the Bush administration insisted on U.S. control (a decision that grows less explicable with each passing day), and other nations with real armies made clear that they wanted no part of what was becoming a bloody occupation.

Confronted with a choice between U.S. occupation and chaos, millions of Americans -- chiefly liberals and Democrats -- who'd been against the war decided to give occupation a chance. In the streets, demonstrations dwindled; in Congress, Democrats (save for a handful) did not call for withdrawal. With unprecedented discipline, Democrats who had opposed the war lined up behind the candidacy of John Kerry, whose position on the war was muddled at best. The question of the occupation fell off the liberal agenda. At the Take Back America conference, a national gathering of liberals held this month, the issue barely came up at all.

In Iraq, however, the situation clarified. What had looked like a choice between occupation and mayhem was something even grimmer: The mayhem proceeds, and will proceed, occupation or no. It will doubtless grow worse if we pull up stakes, but our presence has failed to guarantee stability in politics or daily life. More than two years after Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, the drive from downtown Baghdad to the airport is still a crapshoot with death.

Absent a discernible trajectory of progress, the American people are giving up on the occupation. In last week's CBS News/New York Times poll, 59 percent of respondents said the war was going badly, and just 37 percent approved of President Bush's handling of Iraq. A Gallup poll showed six in 10 Americans favoring full or partial withdrawal of U.S. forces.

These figures already match the polling in the middle and late years of the war in Vietnam -- even though that war was fought with vastly higher casualties and a conscript army. In a series of polls taken in November and December of 1969, the Gallup Organization found that 49 percent of Americans favored a withdrawal of U.S. forces and 78 percent believed that the Nixon administration's rate of withdrawal was "too slow." But there was one other crucial finding: 77 percent disapproved of the antiwar demonstrations, which were then at their height.

That disapproval was key to Nixon's political strategy. He didn't so much defend the war as attack its critics, making common cause with what he termed the "silent majority" against a mainstream movement with a large, raucous and sometimes senseless fringe. When Nixon won reelection in a landslide, it was clear that the strategy had worked -- and it has been fundamental Republican strategy ever since. Though the public sides with the Democrats on more key issues than it does with Republicans, it's Republicans who have won more elections, in good measure because the GOP has raised its ad hominem attacks on Democrats' character and patriotism to a science.

Which is why, however perverse this may sound, the absence of an antiwar movement is proving to be a huge political problem for the Bush administration, and why the Republicans are reduced to trying to turn Dick Durbin, who criticized our policies at Guantanamo Bay, into some enemy of the people. The administration has no one to demonize. With nobody blocking the troop trains, military recruitment is collapsing of its own accord. With nobody in the streets, the occupation is being judged on its own merits.

Unable to distract people from his own performance, Bush is tanking in the polls. And with congressional Democrats at least partly muting their opposition to an open-ended occupation, it's Bush's fellow Republicans -- most prominently, North Carolina's Walter Jones -- who are now calling our policy into question.

The lesson here for liberals and Democrats is not that they should shun oppositional politics -- after all, they confronted Bush head-on over Social Security and prevailed. My hunch is that candidates in the 2006 elections -- not to mention, 2008 -- who call for putting a date on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will be rewarded at the ballot box. But it will probably help such candidates, and certainly confound the Bushites, if antiwar activists forget about the streets and focus on the polls.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company