Short-Term Gain, Long-Term Pain
With the defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary in Connecticut, antiwar forces are poised for a takeover of the Democratic Party. Tuesday's exhilarating victory, and the elan and electoral legitimacy gained, may carry the newly energized Democratic left to considerable success in November.
But for the Democratic Party it will be an expensive and short-lived indulgence. The Iraq war will end, as will the Bush presidency. But the larger conflict that defines our times -- war on Islamic radicalism, more politely known as the war on terrorism -- will continue, as the just-foiled London airliner plot unmistakably reminds us. And the reflexive antiwar sentiments underlying Ned Lamont's victory in Connecticut will prove disastrous for the Democrats in the long run -- the long run beginning as early as November '08.
Consider an analogy that the antiwar types hold dear: Iraq as Vietnam. I reject the premise, but let's assume it for the purpose of following the political consequences of antiwar movements.
The anti-Vietnam War movement had its political successes. They were, as in Connecticut Tuesday, mostly internecine. One Democratic presidency was destroyed (Lyndon Johnson), as was the candidacy of his would-be successor, Hubert Humphrey.
Like Iraq, Vietnam was but one theater in a larger global struggle -- the struggle against the Soviet Union and its communist clients around the world -- and by the early 1970s, the newly reshaped McGovernite party had to face the larger post-Vietnam challenges of the Cold War. The result? Political disaster.
The anti-Vietnam sentiment left a residual pacifism, an aversion to intervention and an instinct for accommodation that proved very costly to the Democrats for years to come. The most notorious example was the liberal flight to the "nuclear freeze" -- the most mindless strategic idea of our lifetime -- in opposition to Ronald Reagan's facing down the Soviet deployment of missiles in Eastern Europe.
Apart from the Carter success of 1976 -- an idiosyncratic post-Watergate accident -- the "blame America first" Democrats were not even competitive on foreign policy for the rest of the Cold War. It was not until the very disappearance of the Soviet Union that the American citizenry would once again trust a Democrat with the White House.
It took the Democrats years to dig themselves out of that hole, helped largely by such pro-defense, pro-Gulf War senators as Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. It is all now being undone by Iraq. The party's latent antiwar fervor has resurfaced with a vengeance -- in Connecticut, quite literally so.
In the short run, as in the Vietnam days, there will be "success": a purging of hawkish Democrats like Joe Lieberman. There might even be larger victories. Enough Ned Lamonts might be elected in enough states to give one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats. But even that short-term gain is uncertain. Lamont may not even win his own state. He narrowly beat Lieberman in a voter universe confined to Democrats. In November independents and Republicans will join the selection process.
But even assuming some short-term victories, where will the Democrats be when the war is over and President Bush is gone?
Lamont said in his victory speech that the time had come to "fix George Bush's failed foreign policy." Yet, as Martin Peretz pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, on Iran, the looming long-term Islamist threat, Lamont's views are risible. Lamont's alternative to the Bush Iran policy is to "bring in allies" and "use carrots as well as sticks."
Where has this man been? Negotiators with Iran have had carrots coming out of their ears in three years of fruitless negotiations. Allies? We let the British, French and Germans negotiate with Iran for those three years, only to have Iran brazenly begin accelerated uranium enrichment that continues to this day.
Lamont seems to think that we should just sit down with the Iranians and show them why going nuclear is not a good idea. This recalls Sen. William Borah's immortal reaction in September 1939 upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland to start World War II: "Lord, if I could only have talked with Hitler, all this might have been avoided."
This naivete in the service of endless accommodationism recalls also the flaccid foreign policy of the post-Vietnam Democratic left. It lost the day -- it lost the country -- to Ronald Reagan and a muscular foreign policy that in the end won the Cold War.
Vietnam cost the Democrats 40 years in the foreign policy wilderness. Anti-Iraq sentiment gave the antiwar Democrats a good night on Tuesday, and may yet give them a good year or two. But beyond that, it will be desolation.