It’s Not a Hockey Game.

August 20, 2006

It’s Not a Hockey Game.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Every Sunday CUIP’s political director Jacqueline Salit and strategist and philosopher Fred Newman watch the political talk shows and discuss them. Here are excerpts from their dialogue on Sunday, August 13, 2006 after watching “The Chris Matthews Show,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group.”

Salit: The discussion on “The McLaughlin Group” about the Israel/Hezbollah conflict led to some people saying the lesson to take away from this war is that you can’t use force, specifically air power, to root out radical Islamic elements. Consequently, this has implications for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Eleanor Clift says ‘You can’t use force, you have to win the hearts and minds of the people.’ Tony Blankley responds: ‘These people have no hearts and minds.’ Others add ‘You can’t use force, you have to use diplomacy.’ Of course, this has implications for future American involvement in Iraq and has implications for Iran. Anybody who is thinking about launching an air war against Iranian nuclear facilities now has to think, not just twice, but essentially has to take that off the table because the experience of the Israelis shows that you can’t go down that road. Would you agree with that? Is this what you have to take away from this experience?

Newman: I don’t know that you take away “can’t.” “Didn’t” might be more like it on this occasion, as in didn’t make it work with this amount of commitment, this amount of troops, this amount of firepower. Sadly, if you’re a neo-con, you might take away from this experience that you’ve got to make enough of an investment, financially and militarily, to blow them off the face of the earth. So, I don’t know what different people take away from this experience. That’s hard to say.

That said, one thing I think that can be learned from this experience, together with the Hamas experience, the Iraq experience, and other experiences, is that Washington’s long term ability to rely on so-called moderate Arab regimes throughout that region to control the situation has become a fiction. You can’t set up new moderate governments, like in the Iraq plan, or continue to turn to Saudi Arabia or elsewhere and think that they will be sufficiently representative of the people to control the region enough to carry out pro-U.S. policies around oil, Israel, Iran, and so on. What you should reasonably draw from this overall experience, it seems to me, is that conception – which has been a dominant conception for a very long time – is obliterated. What’s happening in that area of the world – and many different things are happening and it’s very complex, it can’t be narrowly and parochially characterized – is there’s an emergence of a new kind of leadership. And you’re going to have to figure out a way of relating to it. There was an extended period of time where the moderate Arab puppets could control things for you. That era is over. That’s going to require a reconsideration of that overriding policy. That’s one thing I would have urged that the policymakers take out of this experience.

Salit: Dr. Vali Nasr who was on “Meet the Press” talked about the impact of the removal of Saddam Hussein and the Sunnis from power in Iraq. I think he used the term “unleashing” or “helping to stimulate” a Shiite revival across the region that’s now unfettered, to the extent that it was fettered by Saddam being in power in Iraq. That’s another way of saying that Saddam was a counterweight to Iranian strength in the region, and he pointed to the removal of Saddam as one of the factors that contributes to this situation you’re describing.

Newman: It’s not just the removal of Saddam. It’s not as if Saddam was loved throughout the region. He wasn’t. It’s how that removal took place. The issue is less about Saddam than it is about the president of the United States. The old formula for stability and maintaining U.S. interests in the region doesn’t work anymore. For example, I don’t know that what happened in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is a defeat for Israel. I think it’s actually less a defeat for Israel militarily, than it is a defeat for trying to deal with the unrest in an outdated military/policy framework. That framework is failing for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that there is a significant uprising within the Muslim population, and even by different elements within a Muslim country. The traditional ways of maintaining control, through states, through moderate regimes in the Arab world, doesn’t work anymore.

Salit: So, if you have to take these changes into account, what does the U.S. do with our position of refusing to negotiate with terrorists?

Newman: It’s all well and good for Washington to say, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists.’ You can debate that choice from here to the end of the century. But the real issue now is who do you negotiate with? That’s not clear. Washington might argue that you have to go into Iraq, in the way we have, and create a democratic government that we can negotiate with. But that’s not so obviously a success. So, who’s Washington going to negotiate with?

Salit: If the moderate Arab regimes have no power…

Newman: They have a kind of power, but they don’t have anything resembling popular consensus. That’s why they don’t want to have elections. They’re not fools.

Salit: Israel put together a commission to conduct an inquiry into its own conduct of the war.

Newman: They had to. Their position is deeply troubling to the people of Israel. Larry O’Donnell says they’re one up on us, because we never do that in this country. But what’s the point of saying that? This is not a hockey game between Tel Aviv and Washington.

Salit: Moreover, the war is at their doorstep. It’s not at ours.

Newman: I don’t think it’s just about that. I think there is a more open, populist democratic tradition in Israel than there is here in this country, at this point in time, at least, on matters of national policy. But, so what?

Salit: On “Meet the Press,” John Harwood from the Wall Street Journal focused on what he called “the intellectual ferment on the right” emerging specifically around the question of Iran. You basically have the hardcore neo-con intellectual and policy experts arguing for the use of force in Iran, at the appropriate moment, whenever they take that to be. That’s their strategic approach to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Then you have a split between that wing of the conservative policy establishment and others who are saying you’ve got to develop a diplomatic option. They say ‘We can’t think about using force there.’ And they enumerate all the reasons why you can’t do that.

Newman: Like you can’t win with it.

Salit: Yes, like you can’t win with it. He described this intellectual ferment on the right and then David Gregory said ‘Well, could you build popular support for the extreme neo-con position in the United States today?’ And Harwood answers ‘Well, no, you couldn’t. But the importance of the issue is its polarizing effect on the Republican Party and the impact that that will have on the Republican Party’s strength in American politics.’ Basically, he says, ‘The rule of thumb in American politics is that you’ve got to have a unified party to win’ and this split will disable the party.

Newman: I thought they were saying that your core constituency has to be unified.

Salit: OK, your core constituency has to be unified. But, in effect, what he’s suggesting is that there’s a looming split in your core constituency if you’ve got the neo-cons on one side and George Will on the other.

Newman: I don’t think it’s looming. I think it’s there already.

Salit: So, what does that say about the state of the national Republican Party?

Newman: That’s hard to say. If the presidential election were held tomorrow, I think the probability is that the Republicans would lose despite the fact that the Democrats are…

Salit: …themselves split.

Newman: Split all over the place. But, that’s just speculation. Who the hell knows? And, moreover, the presidential election is a long way off. The midterms are a relatively long way off and they’re only 90 days away. 2008 is…

Salit: …a million years away. In political time.

Newman: …a million years away, yes.

Salit: I’m sure you noticed that General Barry McCaffrey, also on “Meet the Press,” said that in geo-political and military and foreign policy terms, he’s insisted from the beginning that to compare Iraq and Vietnam is totally fallacious. Completely different strategic situations, completely different geo-political considerations, completely different military considerations, etc. But, he said, the domestic fallout and the impact on domestic politics is “eerily similar,” to use his term. Do you think that’s the case?

Newman: I agree with him in this sense: Comparing two events like that is absurd, methodologically absurd. That said, they both have occurred. So, to talk about them together, as a continuum of U.S. policy and international development, is perfectly reasonable. And one of the ways that’s going to manifest itself is in the “eerily similar” responses. They’re not the same, comparatively speaking. But, they form a continuum of activity which has grown and continues to grow. So in that regard they’re going to look alike.

Salit: I guess one difference, domestically, is that while the anti-war element of the Democratic Party is now galvanizing itself and is broadening its base of support inside the Democratic Party, and that was also true in the Vietnam era, the Vietnam War was prosecuted by a Democratic administration not by a Republican administration.

Newman: But, not unlike the current situation, it was with the full support of the other party.

Salit: True. On the one hand you could say: Mirror image, certain similarities, whatever. The Vietnam War era and the radicalization of segments of the American public didn’t produce an independent movement or an independent party. It produced, depending on where you sit, either a left wing takeover of the Democratic Party or a Democratic Party takeover of the Left. Different people would spin that story differently. You’re shaking your head…

Newman: To me, the language of “takeover” is antiquated. I don’t think that’s the way to understand it. There are other variables, other forces. For example, today there is a new, populist base responding to certain key issues, like the war, that is gaining expression within the Democratic Party. It’s been independently organized by various forces. And that’s what’s having the impact.

Salit: OK.

Newman: The numbers of pure Democrats, relatively speaking, in the Democratic Party who have actually stood up and spoken out – people like Russ Feingold or Dennis Kucinich or whomever – are insignificant to the Democrats. That’s not what makes a difference to them. They’ve not been moved by that, they don’t care about that. But, this mass base of anti-war sentiment, combined with modern technology, creates the momentum for this movement.

Salit: I think that’s important.

Newman: That’s why Howard Dean is the chairman of the DNC and not locked away in a loony bin somewhere.

Salit: Because of what’s happened at the base.

Newman: Because of that base. That’s a big socio-political change in American life. And it comes out of – not this event or that event – but out of the continuum of all of these different events, over a period of the last years. The Democrats dealt with the Vietnam era anti-war movement, insofar as it was Democrats who dealt with it, by icing George McGovern after he became the Democratic nominee in 1972. And, so even with all of the fervor of the 1960s – and it was rather significant and it had a long term historical significance – in immediate political terms, in 1968 it led to the nomination of Hubert Humphrey and the victory of Richard Nixon. George McGovern was the after-shock four years later. And he is a virtually forgotten figure. They “took care” of him as they always could. They can’t quite do that now. They can’t just “take care” of Howard Dean because there’s a growing new base. What do you want to call it? Well, that’s a complicated question. But it’s there. Ned Lamont knows it’s there. Other people know it’s there. It’s been there for a long time. Again, I’m not saying I know exactly what it is or that anybody knows exactly what it is. And, surely we don’t know exactly where it’s going. But it’s there.

Salit: So, the conservatives, the right wing, including the neo-cons and the Bush administration, make the moves that they’re making at their peril because this mass does exist.

Newman: Yes. And they’re going to continue to assert that it’s not significant, they’re just crazy, blue state nut cases left over from the 60s. But, they’re not crazy blue state nut cases. They’re a new political force in American political life. What do they stand for? Certainly, they’re opposed to war. Does that mean they’re not patriotic? Will they support troops, once they’re there? Of course they will. Everyone does. But, are they essentially opposed to war as a political tactic? By and large, yes, unless the war has such moral credibility that you can’t possibly oppose it. Iraq doesn’t live up to that standard. People think – and this is true for most people in this country – that Saddam Hussein was an awful, tyrannical maniac. But, they will quickly add…was he bothering us?

Salit: There’s been a big change.

Newman: Yes, there’s been a big socio-cultural political change. Though, it doesn’t translate easily into who’s going to win the midterm elections.

Salit: It doesn’t translate easily, moreover, how it translates is a function of what a lot of different forces and players do in the mix. What different leaders in the Democratic Party do, what leaders in the independent movement do.

Newman: All using different dictionaries for translation.

Salit: Exactly. On this theme, we talked last week about the mischaracterization of the independent movement as pro-war and Lieberman’s move to run “independent” bringing that to the surface. Last week Eleanor Clift refuted that premise. So, I was interested that when David Gregory interviewed John McCain, who has a clear perspective in support of the war, with all of his criticism of the conduct of the war but fully supporting Bush as the president and commander-in-chief, Gregory says to him ‘If you’re running for president or maybe going to run for president, how do you present yourself to independents, given your position on the war?’ I thought it was interesting that he framed the question that way because the premise in his question is that independents are against the war, and now McCain, in order to win independent support, has to give an accounting and a rationalization for why he supported the war. As recently as six months ago, the question would have gone the other way.

Newman: What way?

Salit: The question would have been: I can see how you’re going to get support from Republicans and from independents, but how are you going to make your case to Democrats who are opposed to the war? There would have been a presumption that there wasn’t a gap between McCain’s position on the war and where independent voters were at. I thought it was interesting that Gregory highlighted that cleavage.

Newman: I don’t know that independents can claim that anti-war base of support. It’s broader than the independent movement. It’s bigger than the independent movement. I think independents, who are a substantial base in and of themselves – 30 to 35 percent – need to engage the question of how they’re going to relate to the anti-war movement. Whether they can take it independent is the political question for independents. I don’t know if they can.

Salit: I don’t know that either. Thank you.