Column: Undercurrents: A Call For Progressives to Reveal Their Defense Strategies By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday December 23, 2005

Some weeks ago, in another forum, I warned about the potential trap laid for progressives by the entrance of Pennsylvania Congressmember Daniel Murtha into a leadership role—maybe the Congressional leadership role—in the anti-Iraq War ranks. 

“The Murtha gambit,” I wrote, “sets a dangerous precedent for what kind of person can take the lead in criticizing the nation on matters of war and security. It concedes that the only moral voice who can oppose a war is someone who supported and/or participated in a past war. … Murtha’s gambit may end up winning the battle for progressives (a quicker withdrawal from Iraq), but losing the larger war, the one being fought over the hearts and minds of the public about the role of the military in American life and world affairs. And so we may leave Iraq as we left Vietnam—with too many people in high places convinced we would have won had we only given the military a fighting chance and better strategies. These people will still be willing—and, perhaps, eager—to test that theory out in some other part of the world.” 

For that bit of heresy I got roundly criticized in some progressive and moderate circles, represented by one reader who said that “the analysis presented by [Mr. Allen-Taylor] suffers from left-wing infantilism. We need to agree with the statements of those who agree with us and stop being so damned pure or looking at motives and downsides. … What Murtha did was to change the entire debate in a way that is favorable to war opponents... It is up to us to seize the moment.” 

It is absolutely undeniable that Mr. Murtha’s entry into the Iraq war debate changed the terms of that debate entirely, and forever. Because he is a moderate-conservative, a Vietnam veteran with a long and unbroken history of support for the military rank-and-file, Mr. Murtha’s call for withdrawal made it politically easier for others to publicly join the anti-war ranks. That swelling chorus immediately forced President George Bush out of his protective closet, and in recent days we have been inundated with presidential speeches in which he has begun to publicly lay out the terms under which he believes the war in Iraq can end. It seems only a small crack, true, in the Bush Wall. But out of such small cracks, roaring floods eventually push their way. 

The question is, in what direction and to what end will the End-the-Iraq-War Flood eventually take us? What is the moment to be seized? 

Mr. Murtha, as he certainly should, is using the opening to advocate taking the U.S. military to a strategic point where he wants it to be. I’m badly paraphrasing, and I’m no military expert (and, so, you should check Mr. Murtha’s website and published speeches yourself for the details), but it seems to me that the Pennsylvania congressmember wants to pull U.S. military back to an encircling position in bases surrounding Iraqi population centers, leaving the fighting to “democratic” Iraqi military forces, and reserving U.S. troops only for possible quick re-entry under pre-determined breakdown conditions. 

Such a strategic withdrawal would almost certainly shift the balance of U.S. public opinion that is currently slightly against the Iraq war. Let’s not fool ourselves in these matters of life and death. The U.S. public ended its support for the Vietnam War not because it came to the conclusion that the war goals were wrong, but because—as a whole—it grew tired of U.S. casualties. It is the nagging, unrelenting daily roadside bomb attacks leading to steady U.S. casualties—not general concerns over the mess we are making in the Middle East—that is driving the polls away from war support. End the U.S. casualties—by whatever means—and see how quickly the names Tikrit and Najaf drop from the radar of American public opinion. And, at the same time, see how quickly the debate over the future shape and role of the military gets put on the back burner of public discussion.  

If progressives want to have some influence over what type of military defense replaces our current configuration once the Iraq War eventually ends—however it ends—then now is certainly the time to speak up. 

It is said that many Americans mistrust putting Democrats back into national office because they do not think Democrats have the fire-in-the-belly to use the military to defend the country and protect U.S. interests. You can put most of that down to right-wing political rhetoric; over and over in the past 30 years, mainstream national Democratic leaders have shown that they are just as willing to order to troops into battle as any Texas Republican. 

But what about that broad and unhomogeneous group of folks who call themselves progressives, who have not had their hands on national power for the most part, and who, therefore, have not had the actual responsibility to either pull the trigger or put the gun back into its case? 

Despite the anguish of the work to end the Iraq War and the other oddities and improprieties of the Bush administration, these have actually been easy days for progressives, in one sense. The Bush administration has made itself a nice target in many areas. The Iraq war, and how the Bush folks have fought it, have put the administration into a dilemma of its own construction: it cannot win the war with the number of troops currently on the ground (if, indeed, the war can be “won” by the U.S. side at all), it cannot attract enough new troops voluntarily because of the increasing unpopularity of the war, and it cannot reinstate the draft to swell the troop ranks because that, eventually, would completely drop the bottom out of national war support, as it did in Vietnam. In the past year or so progressives have had the opportunity to stick pins in the Bush War Machine at various hurtful points, delighting in the conservative squirming coming from Congressmember John Conyers’ call for a national draft, for example, not because progressives support such a draft, but because progressives know full well how unpopular a draft would be and that, therefore, a draft will never come to be under Bush.  

But now, to paraphrase the environmental lobby chief from “The American President,” it’s time for progressives to sit at the grownups table. To be more than mostly sideline players in American politics—holders of an occasional City Council or state assembly seat here or there—progressives have to answer the serious questions of these serious times. What should be the form and the role of the United States military forces in America and in the world? How should the United States be defended, and under what circumstances, in these times of terror? In private conversations and countless position papers, progressives have been discussing these issues for years. It’s time to bring that debate out to the general public and let those views be widely known, if they want to have the American public trust them with the ultimate reins of power.