Bad news for Democratic candidates

Posted: Oct 20, 2003 12:00 AM

The problem with the antiwar elite -- and by that I mean most of the Democratic presidential candidates and their assorted liberal "wise men" -- is that political attacks on the president's war on Islamic terrorism won't always be enough to satisfy them. It's just a matter of time before taking shots at the president (Howard Dean), nixing the White House's $87 billion funding request to stabilize Iraq (John Edwards, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich), and penning essays for The New York Review of Books entitled "Iraq: What Went Wrong" (Wesley Clark), will seem evasive at best, even obstructionist. Soon, the burning question Democrats must answer will be not what they think is wrong with George W. Bush's policy, but what they, as members of the antiwar elite, would do in his place.

This is a tough question. It forces members of the antiwar elite to admit they would have left Saddam Hussein and his murderous regime in place -- not exactly a surefire policy to make either Iraq or the world safe for democracy. And now that most of the Democratic presidential candidates have come out against the president's $87 billion funding request to stabilize and democratize the terror-torn, debt-laden country, they are taking themselves and their party to a new extreme. Indeed, being anti-Bush and antiwar, Democrats now pack a double political whammy that, in effect, bolsters Baathists and vitiates victory. And it leaves the American Left prone to increasingly weird contradictions.

Writing in The New York Review of Books, the ever-evolving antiwar candidate Wesley Clark excoriates the president at length over everything he thinks "went" wrong in Iraq -- as if lecturing on ancient history, not unfinished business -- only to throw out this startling bit: "All else being equal, the region and the Iraqi people are better off with Saddam gone." So what is it, a reader may wonder, that fundamentally and philosophically "went wrong" here? In the same magazine issue, antiwar historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. castigates the president for a foreign policy of "doctrinaire unilateralism and moralistic arrogance," before pausing to observe that were the administration to have followed the historian's own recommendations, Saddam Hussein "would probably still be in power in Baghdad." (Probably?) Schlesinger adds: "This is an unsettling thought for opponents of the war."

Why? Opponents of the war necessarily supported the continued reign of the Iraqi despot. The opposite of "regime change" is the status quo -- or worse. Much more unsettling is the fact that for Clark and Schlesinger, among other liberals who bewail the absence of what Clark calls "international legitimacy," critical and moral faculties turn not on immutable standards of fair play and self-preservation, but on such fickle expediencies as "multinational" consensus -- or animus toward George W. Bush.

This rationale seems to be enough for some people. In a slurpy paean to Wesley Clark, Yale's Harold Bloom declares in The Wall Street Journal that because Gen. Clark saved tens of thousands of Muslim lives in Bosnia and Kosovo, he's the man for our times. (Given that George W. Bush saved that many Muslims and more by deposing Saddam Hussein, perhaps the Yale lit light should reconsider his endorsement.) Bloom also declares his anti-Saddam bona fides: "I trust it is clear that I am not deploring our deposing of Saddam Hussein, though its motivations remain obscure."

Maybe the 2003 "Military Balance" report issued by the International Institute of Strategic Studies this week will clarify things. Among the findings of the London-based think tank is its assessment, noted by the Associated Press, that the war in Iraq "hurt al-Qaeda by denying it a potential source of weapons of mass destruction and discouraging states such as Syria and Iran from supporting it." WMD threat and mass butchery aside, this is Objective A in the war on Islamic terrorism. And who -- besides Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Arthur Schlesinger, et al. -- could ask for anything more?

Such scholarly confirmation of the logic on the ground should help solidify the recent rise in the president's job approval ratings. American achievements in Iraq, as delineated by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq's civilian administrator, won't hurt either: 13,000 new reconstruction projects, 40,000 new police officers, 22 million vaccines, 4,900 Internet connections, 1,500 school renovations and more electricity generated than before the war -- not to mention freedom from torture and freedom of speech. Small wonder, really, that the Senate is going the president's way on Iraqi aid; that Turkey has decided to send troops into Iraq after all; that Japan is finally kicking in some cash to the reconstruction effort. A new Gallup Poll may provide the most significant development of all: Seventy-one percent of Baghdad residents say they want U.S. troops to stay in Iraq for an extended period.

All of which may be bad news for Democratic presidential candidates, but it's a big lift for everyone else.