Pander and Run

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By Peter Beinart
Friday, July 28, 2006

After years of struggling to define their own approach to post-Sept. 11 foreign policy, Democrats seem finally to have hit on one. It's called pandering. In those rare cases when George W. Bush shows genuine sensitivity to America's allies and propounds a broader, more enlightened view of the national interest, Democrats will make him pay. It's jingoism with a liberal face.

The latest example came this week when Democratic senators and House members demanded that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki either retract his criticisms of Israel or forfeit his chance to address Congress. Great idea. Maliki -- who runs a government propped up by U.S. troops -- is desperate to show Iraqis that he is not Washington's puppet. And the United States desperately needs him to succeed because, unless he gains political credibility at home, his government will have no hope of surviving on its own.

Maliki took a small step in that direction this week when he articulated a view of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict quite different from that of the Bush administration. His views were hardly surprising: Iraq is not only a majority-Arab country; it is a majority-Shiite Arab country. And in a democracy, leaders usually reflect public opinion. Maliki's forthright disagreement with the United States was a sign of political strength, one the Bush administration wisely indulged.

But not congressional Democrats. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid demanded that Maliki eat his words or be disinvited from addressing Congress. "Your failure to condemn Hezbollah's aggression and recognize Israel's right to defend itself raise serious questions about whether Iraq under your leadership can play a constructive role in resolving the current crisis and bringing stability to the Middle East," wrote Reid and fellow Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin and Charles E. Schumer on July 24.

How, exactly, publicly humiliating Maliki and making him look like an American and Israeli stooge would enhance his "leadership" was never explained in the missive. But of course Reid's letter wasn't really about strengthening the Iraqi government at all; that's George W. Bush's problem. It was about appearing more pro-Israel than the White House and thus pandering to Jewish voters.

Reid's letter is not an anomaly; it is part of a pattern. In February Democrats (and some Republicans) slammed the Bush administration for allowing a company from the United Arab Emirates to take over operation, though not management, of several U.S. ports. Democrats insisted that they were standing up for homeland security, but in fact homeland security experts overwhelmingly said the move did not represent a security risk. The principle animating the Democrats' attack was not security, it was politics. The Bush administration, playing against type, argued that America's long-term security required treating Arab countries with fairness and respect, especially countries, such as the UAE, that assist us in the struggle against jihadist terrorism. One might have thought that the Democrats, after spending years denouncing the Bush administration for alienating world opinion and thus leaving America isolated and weak, would find such logic compelling. But what they found more compelling was a political cheap shot -- their very own Panama Canal moment -- in which they proved they could be just as nativist as the GOP.

Then, in June, the media reported that the Iraqi government was considering an amnesty for insurgents, perhaps including insurgents who had killed U.S. troops. Obviously the prospect was hard for Americans to stomach. But the larger context was equally obvious: Unless Maliki's government gave local Sunni insurgents an incentive to lay down their arms and break with al-Qaeda-style jihadists, Iraq's violence would never end. Democrats, however, rather than giving Maliki the freedom to carry out his extremely difficult and enormously important negotiations, made amnesty an issue in every congressional race they could, thus tying the prime minister's hands. Once again, Democrats congratulated themselves for having gotten to President Bush's right, unperturbed by the fact that they may have undermined the chances for Iraqi peace in the process.

Privately, some Democrats, while admitting that they haven't exactly been taking the high road, say they have no choice, that in a competition with Karl Rove, nice guys finish last. But even politically, that's probably wrong. The Democratic Party's single biggest foreign policy liability is not that Americans think Democrats are soft. It is that Americans think Democrats stand for nothing, that they have no principles beyond political expedience. And given the party's behavior over the past several months, it is not hard to understand why.

The writer, a monthly columnist for The Post, is editor-at-large of the New Republic and author of "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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