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How The 1960s Left Never Died By: Jeffrey Herf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 25, 2008

Party of Defeat: How Democrats and Radicals Undermined America’s War on Terror Before and After 9-11.
By David Horowitz and Ben Johnson
Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2008.

Party of Defeat
documents the opposition of the Democratic Party to the war in Iraq. David Horowitz and Ben Johnson remind us that though many Democrats voted in favor of the original resolution to support the use of force to enforce UN resolutions, they soon turned against the war. The Democrats opposed the surge and supported withdrawal of troops at a time when doing so would have meant losing the war. These efforts began when the war was still very young, gathered steam as the war went badly and reached a crescendo of opposition that led to the Obama candidacy even as the surge began to show promise of moving a terrible situation in the direction of fragile but more hopeful direction.

It is fitting that the Democrat’s Presidential candidate, Barack Obama, called the war a “strategic blunder” from the outset and, as a result, gained strong support from Party’s antiwar activists. In stressing the Democrat’s early opposition to the war, Horowitz and Johnson’s work indicates that the Democrat’s reaction to the war in Iraq was rooted in political beliefs, habits and inclinations that began in the 1960s left, percolated into the liberal mainstream in milder form and then transformed the meaning of American liberalism in the intervening decades. Party of Defeat does not ask if the Bush administration could have done more to sustain a domestic consensus for its war policy. The evidence they offers suggests that even if the President had been the consensus builder he promised to be in 2000 election, most of the leaders of the Democratic Party would not have been ready to reciprocate and to form a coalition government in wartime.

In reading Party of Defeat, I was reminded of the British historian Michael Howard’s 1979 essay, “Social Change and the Defense of the West.” Howard examined the challenge facing the NATO alliance as it sought to sustain a consensus encompassing parties of the democratic left in Western Europe in the face of the armaments build-up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. “Nothing,” he wrote, “would bring the [NATO] Alliance more quickly into disarray than if it could convincingly be depicted as the creature of the Right, a new Holy Alliance directed not at maintaining the political and territorial sovereignty of its members but at preserving a particular structure of society about whose merits there was deeply felt disagreement.” It was, he continued, “natural enough” that parties of the right were “temperamentally most concerned about questions of national defense.” However if NATO “had not also been supported by those parties of organized labor which represent the true center of gravity in industrial societies especially the Labor Party in Britain and the SPD in Germany, it would have disintegrated long ago.”[1]

Though organized labor no longer constitutes a center of post-industrial society in the United States, Howard’s observation did applied to the founding years of the NATO Alliance when the term left-wing anti-communism was not an oxymoron. Yet in tense public exchanges with British anti-nuclear advocates during the euromissile dispute of the early 1980s, Howard himself saw that NATO had indeed become an alliance whose most important decision of the 1980s was supported primarily by conservative parties.

The famous deployments of the Cruise and Pershing 2 missiles were carried out in the face of vehement opposition from American Democrats, British Laborites and West German Social Democrats. At the time, many observers, including myself, thought the fundamental source of opposition on the left lay in cultural and intellectual after-effects of the 1960s left and its “long march through the institutions.” The long attack on anti-communism and on American imperialism created an ideological framework in which the West European left denounced “both superpowers,” the United States and the Soviet Union, as equally dangerous. In this sense the West European leftist opposition to the missile deployments of 1983 bears comparison to the Democrats early and intense opposition to the war in Iraq: both stemmed from long-standing political convictions that had transformed the meaning of the left and of liberalism.

In the months following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, many of us hoped that the combined effect of the collapse of Communism in 1989 as well as the terrorist attacks on that day would foster a reshuffling of the ideological deck and introduce a healthy uncertainty and confusion about long held categories. Perhaps, we thought, the habitual denunciations of American imperialism would be replaced by different memories of a Western liberalism of the 1940s that fought against fascism and Nazism. After all, as Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear had pointed out, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship drew partly on the ideas of European fascism while his hatred of Israel drew on anti-Semitic themes.

Was it not obvious that 9/11 was a crime against humanity, an intentional effort to murder innocent civilians in the name of an ideology that drew explicitly both on the anti-Semitic and anti-democratic currents within both fundamentalist Islam as well as the detritus of European fascism and Nazism? It seemed logical that liberals would see a long war against these distinct yet related forms of totalitarianism as a special threat to everything they held dear and thus as “their” war as well. While the Communists had been radical, anti-democratic cousins of the same Enlightenment traditions that nourished liberal democracy, Al Qaeda, the radical Islamists as well as Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in different ways, evoked the anti-Enlightenment, hence illiberal legacies and ideologies of fascism and Nazism.

In fact, elements of such a new consensus seemed to be emerging but it shattered over the Iraq war. Here Horowitz and Johnson are right to remind the reader of the rationale for the preemptive war in Iraq. For a decade Saddam had flouted the resolutions of the United Nations. It was important to enforce them. Saddam Hussein, bristling with macho, terrorizing his own people, and flouting UN resolutions could use the money to be gained from Iraq’s vast oil reserves to finance building weapons of mass destruction. There was every reason to believe that given sufficient time, he would have the money and scientific and technical resources to acquire such an arsenal. Horowitz and Johnson’s case fortunately does not rest on trying to tie Saddam closely to 9/11. Yet given the presence of radical Islamists, allowing such a regime to develop such weapons would indeed entail enormous risks in the future.

With the debate over the war in Iraq the old ideological frameworks that had been shaken in the wake of 9/11 returned. A minority current of centrist and centrist liberals supported the war including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Senator Joe Lieberman, some writers in The New Republic, some columnists for The Washington Post, and some of the authors and signers of The Euston Manifesto and American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto. But we remained a minority and were soon swamped by the more numerous chorus coming form Moveon.org, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, the editorial page and some of the reporting of The New York Times, not to mention the left-liberal blogosphere. The arguments made by Bush, but also by Blair, about the dangers of appeasement, and of allowing Saddam to successfully flout multiple UN resolutions were dismissed as examples of misplaced historical analogies. The Bush administration’s efforts to arouse the liberal conscience to fight “Islamofascism” and “totalitarianism” occasionally were met with derision and academic scolding of those who would misapply these loaded but still appropriate terms.

In my view, George Bush’s key “strategic blunder” to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, was not to have governed from the political center in the aftermath of 9/11. A centrist government would have raised, not lowered taxes. It would have called on young Americans from all economic backgrounds to join the military. Instead, President Bush combined a conservative domestic agenda that aroused anger in half of the electorate after a bitter and close election in which he lost the popular vote with a bold offensive against “the Axis of evil” as well as “the war on terror” against the radical Islamists.

As a result all those who despised him and the Republican Party for its stance on abortion, tax cuts for the wealthy, global warming, gay marriage, gun ownership, and other domestic issues found it easy to avoid thinking hard about how free societies needed to fight a war for their survival against those determined to destroy them. Perhaps most of the Democratic Party would have rebuffed him no matter how far he moved in their direction in domestic affairs. Yet a move to the center created the possibility of “triangulating” from the right, splitting his opposition and bringing part of it into a centrist or center-right coalition. We don’t know if such an approach in the United States would have worked because Bush unfortunately never tried it out.

Perhaps the ideological divide was simply too great. Perhaps the experience of Tony Blair in England indicated that even the most eloquent of center-left political leaders could not convince his own Labor Party and the British press and intellectual elites to support the war in Iraq. On the contrary, a particular ugly brew of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism surfaced in parts of the British press and public debate and Blair was finally forced to resign.

The statements by leaders of the Democratic Party gathered by Horowitz and Johnson suggest that even if Tony Blair had been President of the United States, he too would have had great difficulty gaining support for this war from the Democratic Party. For Horowitz and Johnson’s core thesis really is that the main cause of opposition to the war in Iraq by the leaders of the Democratic Party was not the much discussed errors of the way in which the war was conducted or in the supposed falsehood of the claims on which the war was based. Rather it lay in the long-held political convictions rooted in the 1960s anti-war movement passed on to subsequent generations and then made more respectable in the crucible of Washington D.C.’s politics.

This liberalism was no longer driven by the memories of Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-fascism. Rather it was an aftereffect of opposition to the war in Vietnam. By 2002, there was nothing new about the antiwar sentiment in Washington or in the speech made by a then little known Illinois State Senator in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. It was this pre-existing disposition that surfaced in various issues such as the aluminum tubes and yellow cake from Niger, the causes of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the truth and falsehood of prewar claims about Saddam’s weapons programs, as well as the contents of post-invasion reports about what the American military did and did not find. These dispositions and mood persisted evan as the nature of the enemy changed.

Here though the point should be made that a war of preemption must, by definition, rest on assumptions that cannot be definitively proven. Hence it is inherently controversial. This is the case because preemption rests on a belief about what will happen in the future based on assumptions about the intentions and capabilities of a potential enemy. It is about what will happen in the future as much as what has already taken place. The most famous case of preemption that did not take place illustrates the point.

The historian Williamson Murray has argued that Britain and France had the capability to invade and defeat Nazi Germany in 1938, that is, at a time before Hitler’ military reached its subsequent strength. Had they done so, he argued, there would have been a war but not a “World” war and certainly no Holocaust. Murray’s case, however compelling, remains a hypothetical one. However, if such as war had been a smashing success leading to victory in a short time there would have been scant evidence that Hitler intended to start a war to dominate the entire continent and no evidence at all that he planned to attempt to murder all of European Jewry. Rather, critics might have denounced it as another example of British and French imperialism and unprovoked aggression. George W. Bush drew, in my view, the right conclusion that the combination of potential billions of dollars in oil revenue combined with the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime was a danger that was too great to tolerate. But the evidence of the war’s success lay partly in what it had prevented and that is an outcome that cannot be definitively proven.

Many books have documented what went wrong in the American occupation of Iraq beginning in summer 2003. Supporters of the war, such as John McCain were calling for a change in strategy in order to win the war. A the same time, Horowitz and Johnson document the calls of Democratic leaders in Washington for withdrawal from Iraq at a point when doing so would have meant that the war would have been lost. Indeed, in the darkest hours in 2006, when Iraq was spiraling towards a civil war and massive violence was a daily occurrence, the Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid declared that the war was lost. The Democrats were sure that the surge recommended by General David Petraeus would fail and introduced bills in Congress to make prosecution of the war more difficult. Horowitz and Johnson’s work confirms what any regular newspaper reader knew: The leaders of the Democratic Party in Washington opposed the surge and supported various plans to withdraw from Iraq even if it would have meant that the United States would have lost the war, one that Senator John Kerry, the Party’s Presidential nominee in 2004, called “the wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Party of Defeat’s arguments bring us back to Michael Howard’s observations about how long NATO could have survived if it were only an alliance supported by conservative parties. It is reasonable to assume that the fires lit by radical Islam will take some time to burn out. Communism’s ideological drive as a major force in world politics lasted seven decades and in some small countries still thrives. No one knows how long radical Islam and its terrorism will be a factor in world politics but it will certainly extend into the next Presidential term. The situation in Iraq is better but as General Petraeus warns, the gains are fragile and can be undone. No one is sure when Iran and other countries will combine religious fanaticism with nuclear weapons but unless stopped it surely will do so. We do know that none of the major speakers at the Democratic Party’s recent convention mentioned the words “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremism” or “Mahmoud Ahmadenijad.” We know that Barack Obama has rarely mentioned them in winning the Democratic Party’s nomination and said nothing about them in his convention speech.

So faced with the continuing threat of radical Islam, a war that is not yet won in Iraq but whose progress could be undone, and the dilemma of how to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the Democratic Party has nominated a man whose campaign drew heavily from the fact that he never supported the war in Iraq and favors talking with the Iranians. While Obama speaks warmly of his support for Israel, his opposition to the war in Iraq and his general orientation to foreign policy makes it hard to believe that he would revise his world view so drastically and launch a preemptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if diplomatic and economic pressures failed to derail the program. Michael Howard’s question about NATO is now a live and pressing question for our time: can the current war in Iraq, the offensive against radical Islamists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power succeed if they only supported by the Republican Party? Or, in my own words, is Bush’s strategic blunder of 2002-03, that is his refusal to govern from the center, now to be followed by possible President Obama’s strategic blunder of 2009 that would undermine those successes that have occurred in Iraq and in the offensive against the radical Islamists.

I come away from reading Party of Defeat with my view reinforced that the United States badly needs bi-partisanship but is unlikely to get it. How and why the Democrats, the classic party of anti-fascism and the heirs of Franklin Roosevelt, came to oppose the war in Iraq will be a question that historians will address in years to come. Now, we need a government coalition that extends from conservatives to the center left led by politicians who have a deep understanding of both international affairs as well as the political skills and desire to form bi-partisan compromises concerning contentious social, economic and cultural controversies at home. Such a coalition will be difficult to form so long as the Democratic Party’s orientation in foreign affairs continues the patterns of recent years. Party of Defeat offers scant hope that the Democrats are in a mood for reassessment. The air is filled with talk of hope and change but we live in dangerous times. Democrats will not enjoy the experience but, whether or not they win the Presidential election, they would be well advised to reflect on the arguments of the bold and angry book. It is both a valuable contribution to political debate and a first cut at what will be enduring and important historical disputes.


[1]. Michael Howard, “Social Change and the Defense of the West,” in Michael Howard, The Causes of War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), pp. 65-84.

[Editors' note: To read Michael Isikoff's recent exchange with the authors of Party of Defeat, click here. Read also Nick Cohen's and Bruce Thornton's critiques.]

Jeffrey Herf teaches Modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park. His most recent book is The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006). His history of Nazi propaganda aimed at Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East during World War II is forthcoming with Yale University Press in fall 2009. He was one of the authors of “American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto.”

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