Monday, January 29, 2007

Dissent in wartime: the tide has turned

Over the past five years, it has been difficult to determine exactly what form of dissent the Bush war team deems acceptable. Administration officials have repeatedly dangled the carrot (we welcome a full and vigorous debate) while applying the stick (any full and vigorous debate will give aid and comfort to the terrorists).

But let’s give them points for sheer consistency. Even though dissent on the Iraq war has now become the centrist position in America, even though 64 percent of Americans (and 69 percent of independents) believe that Congress has not been sufficiently assertive about challenging President Bush on the war, Bush and his surrogates are still contending that any deviation from unity (as defined by the Decider) is tantamount to doing the terrorists’ work. Bush recently said in an interview that he is sleeping well at night, but it’s hard to imagine he rests comfortably knowing that most of his fellow citizens have become seditious coddlers of the enemy.

That’s the administration message about wartime dissent, not withstanding Bush’s latest attempt at carrot-dangling (from his Jan. 23 State of the Union speech: “I respect you, and the arguments you’ve made”). Last Friday, new Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with reporters and said that any congressional resolution opposing the Bush troop escalation “certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries. I think it’s hard to measure that with any precision, but it seems pretty straightforward that any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to these folks.”

Gates was merely repeating the line laid out by Bush spokesman Tony Snow, at a White House briefing 10 days earlier. NBC correspondent asked the key question – “What is an appropriate way to dissent?” – and Snow replied: “You just take a look at what ramifications (dissent) may have. That’s all I’m saying….The question again is, does this send a signal that the United States is divided on the key element of success in Iraq.”

Yesterday, the line was picked up on the Sunday talk shows. Bill Kristol, the neoconservative Fox News fixture, said that the people’s representatives on Capitol Hill would be best advised to “do nothing” about the troop escalation plan, because doing or saying anything “can only encourage our enemies.” Over on ABC, Republican Senator Dick Lugar, while sounding quite unenthusiastic about the latest Bush strategy, nevertheless argued that dissent is not a luxury we can afford: “I don’t believe it’s helpful right now to show there’s disarray (in the Senate). We really need, at this point, to get on the same page.”

And back on Fox News, semi-Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman put his own caveat on the First Amendment, contending that any effort by the Senate to express dissent right now “will discourage the troops, who we’re asking to carry out this new plan, and it will encourage the enemy.”

This argument has actually been around since the 2002 midterm election season, when the Republicans successfully employed it to enforce silence. That autumn, Bush contended that Democrats who questioned his prewar claims about Saddam Hussein were clearly “not interested in the security of the American people.” Then, in the autumn of 2004, Bush warned that dissenting comments about the war in Iraq “can embolden the enemy.” Then, during the 2006 midterm election season, House Majority leader John Boehner (who was on his way to becoming House Minority leader) said of Democratic dissenters, “I wonder if they’re more interested in protecting terrorists than in protecting the American people.”

Call it consistency, or perhaps sheer stubbornness, but it’s certainly striking that the Bush surrogates persist in making this argument even after being repudiated by the electorate. According to figures supplied by the nonpartisan National Journal, Republican House candidates in two-party races garnered only 45.9 percent of the vote last November – the worst GOP showing since Bush arrived on the national scene (see Jan. 19 for full statistics). And the latest polls chart the administration's ebbing credibility; yesterday, the Newsweek survey reported that 67 percent of Americans (including 70 percent of the pivotal independents) now feel that Bush is primarily guided only by his personal beliefs, not by "what the facts are."

Indeed, this shift in public mood explains why war dissenters now feel so emboldened about confronting the administration.

It says something about the way Iraq is reshaping our politics that a conservative senator and favorite of the religious right – that would be ’08 presidential candidate Sam Brownback of Kansas – now seems positioned to the left of Joe Lieberman. Brownback fired back at Lieberman yesterday on Fox News, basically contending that if anything is emboldening the enemy, it is the disaster on the ground on Iraq, and not the words of dissent being uttered back home:

“I don’t see this enemy as needing any more emboldening or getting it from any resolution. They’re emboldened now. I was there two weeks ago in Iraq. I was in Baghdad. I was in northern Iraq. This is a very aggressive situation. You have sectarian violence of Sunni and Shia. I was in the Kurdish area. They were talking about we have to get the Sunni and Shia together. I talked with the head of the Kurdish group. He said he wouldn’t vote for more troops because you have to first force the Sunni and Shia to sit down and talk about a political accommodation and that’s not happening.”

Over on CBS, Democratic Senator James Webb said simply that lawmakers have already given Bush four years to perform competently in Iraq, but that their patience is now exhausted – which is why it “borders on irresponsibility” for anyone to contend at this point that dissenters are hurting the troops and aiding the enemy. He was soon seconded by Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who contended that dissent in wartime is “the price worth paying in a democracy.”

But perhaps the best argument for wartime dissent was not articulated on any of the Sunday shows:

“The president is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else."

That was former President Theodore Roosevelt, then and now a hero to his fellow Republicans (notably John McCain), writing at the height of World War I, while hundreds of thousands of American troops were in harm’s way.