Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Party Factions and Protests

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice piece looking back on the 10 year anniversary of the Iraq War.  However, I think he gets a major lesson about the war wrong when he lionizes the original anti-war protestors a decade ago:
In fact it meant a lot. It meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, "No. Not in my name." It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it. It also meant pragmatism...And finally it meant the election of the country's first black president whose ascent began at an anti-war rally in Chicago.  I say all this to say that if I regret anything it is my pose of powerlessness -- my lack of faith in American democracy, my belief that the war didn't deserve my hard thinking or hard acting, my cynicism. I am not a radical. But more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every "sensible" and "serious" person you knew -- left or right -- was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right.
While he is right that the protestors may have been right about some things (they were wrong about others) he completely misses the story of how the war actually ended.  It's pretty clear that neither the Iraqi Government or some other third party could have ejected us from Iraq and that because the war was financed by deficit spending and fought by an all volunteer military that an ongoing presence in Iraq was completely possible.  Indeed John McCain campaigned on a promise of US troops in Iraq through 2013 at least.  Furthermore, the Presidency of George W. Bush shows us that a determined political party, the GOP, could keep an unpopular war going for years.  In short, public protests and public opinion neither stopped the war nor shortened it, making their effectiveness pretty doubtful.

So why did the war end?  Well the answer is that a determined faction inside the Democratic Party made opposition to the Bush's Iraq policies a mandatory position for elected Democrats to stay in good standing in their party.  This in term meant that the election of a Democrat in 2008 ensured the end of the presence of American Armed Forces in Iraq.  As I recall, in the lead up to the war there were three main faction inside the Democratic Party, Hawks like Joe Lieberman who supported war, Doves like Paul Wellstone who opposed it and people who punted like then House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt who refused to vote categorically against a war but didn't seem to care too much one way or the other and deferred this matter of foreign affairs to the Presidency.  Between 2003 and 2004 it was the Deaniacs that advanced the anti-war cause by making opposition to the war a viable position for a Democratic presidential nominee, even though Dean lost for othereasons.  After that it was the anti-Lieberman people who turned support for the war into a political liability rather than a political strength (remember who voting for the authorization for use of force in 2002 was seen as the "smart" political move?)  So that by the time the race for the 2008 nomination was on, all the major candidates for the Democratic nomination were for some withdrawal strategy.  We might remember that Obama was anti-war as opposed to Clinton but in reality their positions on how to move forward were very similar, even if their record from 2002 was not.  In short, what ended the war was a faction of a political party working inside that party to make their views, end the war, the position of their party through the daily grind of politics and elections.  That's about as unradical as you can get.      

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