The Progressive Duck-and-Cover

As President Bush prepares to expand the war on terrorism worldwide, Capitol Hill progressives are keeping unconscionably quiet


A tip of the hat to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.), who recently expressed skepticism about the administration’s war plans, telling Pentagon officials at a Feb. 27 hearing: “If we expect to kill every terrorist in the world, that’s going to keep us going beyond doomsday.” Whether progressives will take inspiration from the far-from-progressive Byrd remains to be seen.

A healthy domestic reaction to Bush’s immense overreach has been disturbingly slow in coming. The first outspoken reactions to Bush’s “axis of evil” remark came from Europe and Asia. Then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle found the nerve to suggest the US avoid rushing to war with Iraq. More modestly, Sen. John Kerry also joined in to warn against war with Saddam Hussein and cast doubt on the sense of the president’s “axis” remark.

Perhaps, at last, there’s a critical snowball rolling. As Democrats finally rouse themselves to criticize the Bush administration’s plan for endless war against endless enemies, let’s laud them for making the effort — but not get carried away. They took their time. Most are still silent.

In the short run, wars make presidents popular and frighten Congress. Despite the fact that only Congress has the Constitutional authority to declare war, leaders on the Hill again and again give the president a free hand to launch the use of force — whether the cause be just or unjust.

Capitol Hill progressives ducked-and-covered in the early months of the decidedly unjust Vietnam War, and they did the same during the decidedly just US offensive in Afghanistan. That many continue to run scared, however, is a default, an error, and a shame. Someday, some of them, at least, will regret it.

Granted, it’s unrealistic to expect sweeping, broad-based dissent from working politicians in wartime. When that war is a perpetual, blank check campaign against nations or groups of the president’s choosing, however, it is reasonable to expect Washington’s supposed progressives to speak up — and not just when addressing die-hard constituents on the left.

The Democratic leadership, predictably, said nothing and did even less when President George W. Bush cranked up the “axis of evil” rhetoric in his State of the Union speech on Jan. 29. Never mind that the war Bush was embracing would range far beyond the Afghan front lines — where America’s military power, for all its awful consequences, had the salutary effect of deposing the Taliban.

At first, when Bush threw down the gauntlet with that speech, effectively seizing Congress’ war powers, Democrats looked nervous and changed the subject. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt delivered the official party response, predictably dissenting on Bush’s economic proposals but remaining mute on the bizarre triad of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. No insubordination in the face of the Commander-in-Chief, no sirree!

Dennis Kucinich’s Progressive Caucus alternative state of the union message on Jan. 29 was also mum on foreign policy. Even now, the Web site of the House Progressive Caucus contains nary a word about Bush’s declared intent to wage an endless war wherever and whenever he chooses. The most promising presidential hopeful of the 1990’s, Paul Wellstone, has also remained silent on the issue — choosing to follow Gephardt’s lead in criticising only Bush’s domestic proposals.

It’s true that before the State of the Union — as John Nichols reported in the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, but hardly anyone else noticed — a group of Democratic Representatives, including Madison’s Tammy Baldwin, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Sam Farr and Lynn Woolsey of California, Lynn Rivers of Michigan, and Jim McDermott of Washington, wrote Bush to call for a debate on the scope of future military action.

“Mr. President, we believe that there is no basis to dispute the justification we possess for the use of force in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, but we do believe that there is room to debate the wisdom of its use in particular circumstances, particularly should the conflict expand,” they wrote judiciously. “Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict.”

But “clear and compelling evidence” is not Bush’ style. In the absence of clear and compelling evidence that Philippine guerrillas have anything to do with Al Qaeda, the deployment already at work there is plainly ill-advised. Elsewhere, interventions may make sense. But who’ll know without the debate? Toward that end, what are progressives waiting for?

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