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American Liberalism's Achilles Heel

Posted Jun. 1, 2004

by Patrick G. Coy
 
The President's speech on May 24 contained no new strategic initiatives for Iraq. And given the Iraq debacle, the Bush administration is reeling, far back on their heels as their approval ratings head south. But you would never know it by the behavior of Democrats who have largely failed to seize the moment to go on the policy offensive.

Each day brings another shocking revelation about Iraq. They range from costly corruption and crony capitalism to sexual torture to inexcusable battlefield blunders that have killed hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqi innocents, apparently including wedding parties.

A year ago, Americans were ashamed that the White House had not adequately planned to secure the Iraqi museums, the libraries, and the cultural resources of the "cradle of civilization." Under American rule, looters ruled in Iraq.

The misguided disbanding of the Iraqi Army and police not only created a security vacuum the occupation has still not filled, but has contributed to rampant unemployment, winning few Iraqi minds and no hearts.

The invasion that was to bring stability has intensified tensions, increased instability, and strengthened distrust of the US worldwide, and especially in the Middle East. US failure to secure Iraq's borders has compounded the security problems facing Iraqis during the occupation.

The recently revealed human rights violations and sexual torture of prisoners (many held without evidence) are particularly troubling. Increasingly, evidence points upward through the chain of command for responsibility for the sexual tortures. "Nakedgate" has the Bush administration on the ropes, with little viable defense.

Yet the specific details of the latest revelations no longer really matter. The cumulative effect is the same: most decent Americans are at least shaken and embarrassed by the debacle in Iraq. Many are also outraged at the deceptions used to sell the invasion, and are ashamed of the sexual war crimes being committed in their name in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.

The Democratic Convention in July is a still a long way off, and the November elections even further away. Thus, John Kerry is being careful, not swinging too aggressively, too often, too soon. Perhaps this is good electoral politics during a war. Yet it is fair to ask: Aside from Ted Kennedy and a rejuvenated Al Gore, where are the rest of the Democrats?

Just exactly where are the other Democrats who should be stepping up on behalf of the party's standard-bearer and going toe to toe with the Bushies while their policies are in tatters and while they are reeling and against the ropes? Where is Tom Harkin, Diane Feinstein, Tom Daschle, Russ Feingold, and others? Where are the resolutions of censure for deceptions pedaled to Congress? Where are the demands for a full and prompt accounting of who knew what, when, and where? Where is the outrage over this budget-busting and deficit-inducing war? Where are the critiques for the woefully inadequate planning and training?

Retired General Anthony Zinni, appointed by Bush as special envoy to the Middle East, said on May 23 about Iraq, "I saw at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence and irresponsibility, at worse, lying, incompetence and corruption." And if conservative Republicans William Kristol and Richard Perle can simply call President Bush's handling of Iraq "incompetent" and a "grave error" respectively, why can't Bush's actual opponents do that and much more, and more often?

Actually, the Democrats' timidity reveals a long-standing failure that haunts American liberalism. There is no fire in the belly, no smelling of blood. There is no willingness to move in to batter the wounded opponent so that the standard-bearer can step in and finish him and his misguided policies off in the fall. In short, there is no willingness to risk a little in order to maybe turn the country around.

Four years ago, Al Gore chose not to exploit George W. Bush's weaknesses: his disengaged and poor performance as Texas governor; his lack of foreign policy experience; and his going AWOL with the National Guard, among others. Then, when the Bush machine delivered Florida with a series of sleights of hand, Gore and the Democratic National Committee continued to play nice.

We are all paying for those mistakes in timidity. Now, they are being made again, when the stakes are even higher, and when there is much less justification for doing so.

Patrick G. Coy (pcoy@kent.edu) is Associate Professor of Political Science and Conflict Management at Kent State University, and the editor of the annual volume, "Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change."

Copyright 1996-2004 Knight Ridder.