Sunday, September 09, 2007

Breaking The Clinch: A 12-Step Program for Distancing Ourselves

The Democrats in Congress have adopted a basic defensive strategy from boxing: The Clinch. By repeatedly backing down from confrontations over Iraq and other issues, they hope to avoid being attacked for betraying the troops and undermining U.S. security by cutting the Pentagon's funding for the war.

Predictably, Democrats seem no more capable of responding to these attacks than they did during the months before the 2004 election. Instead, they've sought a "bipartisan" alliance with Republican moderates that would impose loose but veto-proof limitations on the U.S. commitment to Iraq.

The strategy has failed dismally. The Democrats don't appreciate the depth and intensity of public rage and hostility towards the war. In boxing, the "clinch" strategy requires one opponent to embrace the other to avoid hard punches. In politics, it becomes difficult to distinguish one party from the other, so the Democrats are now identified all too closely with an unpopular war. Like the Republicans, they fret endlessly but seem incapable of resolute action.

Yet another poll has brought home this point:
Fifty-eight percent, a new high, said they want to decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. And most of those who advocated a troop reduction said they want the drawdown to begin either right away or by the end of the year. A majority, 55 percent, supported legislation that would set a deadline of next spring for the withdrawal of American combat forces. That figure is unchanged from July. Only about a third believed the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq... [emphasis added.]
In the face of such hostility, Democrats should be gaining major ground. They're not:
Going forward, the public trusts Democrats over Republicans to handle Iraq by an 11-point margin, but two in 10 now trust "neither" party on the issue. In previous polls, congressional Democrats had wider advantages over President Bush on Iraq, with that gap as high as 27 points in January.
These numbers explain why even "antiwar" Democrats returning to the Pacific Northwest for "town halls" have been met by large, vocal and openly hostile crowds. The victims include antiwar Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Darlene Hooley of Oregon and Brian Baird of Washington State (who opposed the war but inexplicably voted to support the surge).

A more vigorous party, with a real sense of direction and assertive leadership, would figure out that a new strategy is long overdue. Otherwise the hapless Democrats will stagger through another series of lost electoral opportunities.

So here's a modest suggestion: the focus now should be on distancing ourselves and the country, in the strongest possible terms, from the barbarians who've misruled the country for the last six and a half years. The strategy should begin immediately with the following six steps, followed by six more after the 2008 election:
  1. Pass needed legislation, on subjects as diverse as Iraq and health care, even (or especially) if a veto is inevitable. Force the veto, force an override vote, and show exactly who is obstructing solutions to serious national problems.
  2. Launch vigorous congressional investigationsat last!of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the use of torture and the many other instances of overreaching by a lawless administration.
  3. Refuse to approve Bush nominations for all regulatory, judicial and executive vacanciesfrom the Supreme Court to Deputy Undersecretary of State for Eastern Caribbean Affairs. Bipartisanship has meaning to Republicans in D.C. only when they're in the minority.
  4. Fiercely denounce the Bush/Cheney project in Iraq in every available international forum from the U.N. to NATO and beyond. While the U.S. traditionally has just "one foreign policy at a time," the present crisis demands otherwise.
  5. Declare that ample legal grounds exist to impeach and remove the Bush/Cheney cabal from office based on their war crimesespecially crimes against peace, waging an aggressive war, and crimes against humanity. Not to mention their assault on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  6. Then impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney. Force a vote in the House and a trial in the Senate, even if 1/3 or more of the Senators vote for acquittal. This isn't a distraction, as Nancy Pelosi seems to believe, nor is it frivolous. (After the Clinton farce, can any Republican claim with a straight face that an impeachment of Bush/Cheney is a total waste of time?)
Maybe the Democrats will finally get their act together, retain Congress and win the White House in 2008. Then what? In terms of repairing some of the damage to its international stature, the U.S. will urgently need to distance itself from the criminal behavior of the Bush/Cheney yearfor moral reasons, ultimately, but also to rebuild lost goodwill around the world and become a member in good standing of international organizations. For example, a new administration and Congress could:
  1. Initiate domestic war crimes prosecutions against the perpetrators, assuming there are no presidential pardons. [1] (As discussed elsewhere, international war crimes prosecutions are almost inconceivable because the U.S. would never consent, and it wouldn't extradite.)
  2. Appoint a special prosecutor to convene a grand jury and prosecute those in the government who legitimized and authorized torture and other war crimes. (A special prosecutor is necessary because some Dems were undoubtedly involved.)
  3. Aggressive diplomacy to show people around the world that Americans renounce the actions of the part administration.
  4. Organize an international conference of religious leaders to open and expand a dialog in order to prevent the "clash of civilizations" that causes neocons to salivate.
  5. Propose a summit conference of secular leaders for the same purpose.
  6. Expand cultural exchanges to improve communications with the rest of the world and demonstrate that the U.S. can play a positive role in international affairs. Increase foreign aid to bring the U.S. closer to the mainstream in terms of percentage of GPA devoted to that purpose.
No doubt the list could go on, but it's a start. In a time of national crisis, it's absolutely vital to have a genuine opposition party that is willing to distance itself and (more importantly) the country from the outrages of the current administration.


[1] Impeachment and conviction would only remove Bush/Cheney from office. To hold them fully accountable, a criminal prosecution is necessary.

PHOTO: Two boxers in a clinch (Wikimedia Commons).

UPDATE (September 10th):

The latest New York Times poll has more bad news for Democrats:
The poll found that both Congress, whose approval rating now stands at its lowest level since Democrats took control from the Republicans last year, and Mr. Bush enter the debate with little public confidence in their ability to deal with Iraq. Only 5 percent of Americans — a strikingly low number for a sitting president’s handling of such a dominant issue — said they most trusted the Bush administration to resolve the war, the poll found. Asked to choose among the administration, Congress and military commanders, 21 percent said they would most trust Congress and 68 percent expressed most trust in military commanders.
"Commanders" like General David Petraeusthe same "military professional" who testified today that the surge is working and the U.S. presence in Iraq should continue indefinitely?

Apparently there's a misconception on this point: politically speaking, generals are marionettes of the White House, and they're purged on the spot if they're not. Ask generals like Eric Shinseki, Antonio Taguba and George W. Casey what happens if you deviate from the party line. It's no coincidence that Petraeus exactly parrots the White House position (and at the same time praises his own performance).

The confidence in Pentagon "professionals" also elides the larger issue: the military is an instrument of policy whose efforts always need to be placed in the context of policy. As in Vietnam (where the U.S. "won all the battles"), military successes in Iraq lack long-term value if they don't further political objectives.

The policy is what finally matters, not the competence or professionalism of the soldiers, sailors and Marines who carry it out.

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