TCS Daily

An Open Letter to the Party of Wilson and Roosevelt

By Michael Totten - September 22, 2003 12:00 AM

A lot of liberals and moderates are vexed with a troubling question: In the age of terrorism, is it still safe to support the Democratic Party? The fact that Howard Dean, darling of the anti-war activists, is the front-runner in the Democratic primary race isn't helping.


According to surveys taken before and during the Iraq war, 50 percent of Democrats supported regime-change in Iraq. And polls consistently show that up to three times as many Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats with national security.


Before the Democrats should expect to win an election, they need to engage in some damage control. First, bring back the alienated moderates and the hawks. Only then can they get support from the non-partisan center.


Though I'm a life-long Democrat and would like to remain one, I'm wary. I can't speak for every moderate and liberal hawk in the country, but I'd like to give a little advice to my wayward and weakened party.


Develop a War Strategy


Howard Dean insists he is more serious than President Bush on national security, despite his opposition to the war in Iraq. Unlike Bush, he wants to take on Saudi Arabia.


Our oil money goes to the Saudis, where it is recycled and some of it is recycled to Hamas and two fundamentalist schools which teach small children to hate Americans, Christians and Jews... This president will not confront the Saudis.


This is a start, but it's not good enough.


Maybe it's too much to expect Dean to reverse his stance on Iraq. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a strategist, he needs to be honest about what the Iraq war means. Ousting Saddam Hussein makes his sought-after confrontation with Saudi Arabia possible.


On September 11, 2001, the United States and House of Saud woke up in an unhappy marriage. The U.S. and most of the world was dependent upon Saudi oil. And Saudi Arabia needed American troops to prevent Iraq from invading. Yet Al Qaeda is primarily made up of Saudis -- 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Osama bin Laden is a Saudi. The Taliban were a client regime of the Saudis.


Al Qaeda galvanized its supporters by railing against our "infidel" troops on Saudi "holy" soil. We needed to leave, but were trapped. We couldn't appease Osama bin Laden without proving that terror can work. And we still needed to protect Saudi oil from seizure by Saddam Hussein. Though they sat at the heart of the terror axis, we needed the Saudis and they needed us.


Regime-change in Iraq sprung the trap.


We are moving troops to Iraq and Qatar on our terms, not on Osama bin Laden's, and not in a moment of weakness. The sanctions have been lifted; Iraqi oil can replace Saudi oil on the world market. We don't need Saudi oil, we don't need to protect them, and we don't need to coddle them. We can now file papers for divorce.


But we may not want to do that just yet. Howard Dean, and for that matter any other like-minded Democrat, will need to explain what he wants to do about Saudi Arabia. Making public anti-Saudi noises won't accomplish much of anything. More important, the last thing the US should do is let the House of Saud go the way of the Shah of Iran.


The ruling family is a horror. But there is no more viable local alternative. There are a few Saudi democrats, but there are many more jihadists. The monarchy is despised on the street not because it's an authoritarian theocracy, which it is, but because it is far too "Western" and too "liberal." The overthrow of the House of Saud might mean an Al Qaeda regime.


Mend, Don't End, the Bush Doctrine


There is no wisdom in rigidly following a single strategic blueprint from the beginning of the war all the way through to the end. The Democrats are the opposition; it is their duty and their right to criticize the president and offer some plans of their own. Republicans need to listen. They cannot fight this war by themselves. But critics need to be careful and not oppose everything.


Howard Dean made a promise. "On my first day in office, I will tear up the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war." That would not be wise. Preemptive war has a respectable place in military history, and an absolutely crucial place in recent history. In 1967 Egypt, Syria, and Jordan moved their troops to the borders and promised to annihilate the state of Israel. Israel would not exist if it had not preemptively struck. And if Israel had not unilaterally destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981, Saddam Hussein would have had nuclear weapons on the day he invaded Kuwait.


Reasonable people can disagree about the prudence of regime-change in Iraq. But no president should say in advance he would not act similarly in different and more dangerous circumstances.


Dean may as well announce that under his administration the Iranian mullahs can finish their nuclear weapons program. That's exactly what they think his strategy means.


Demonstrate the Will to Fight


The Terror War is different from the Cold War. It's hotter. Terrorists are undeterrable. In asymmetric warfare, balance of power is impossible.


Saudi Arabia is to terrorism what Russia once was to Communism. It is the nerve-center of jihad, the worldwide capital of the expansionist totalitarian Wahhabi strand of Islam. In the Cold War we were lucky. We never got drawn into Moscow. But if the House of Saud falls, or if it aligns itself more explicitly with jihadists, we may have no choice but to forcibly change the regime and the political culture of its hostile population at gunpoint.


Think about what that would mean. An invasion and occupation of Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh would not be liberation. This time the Arab street really could erupt with a terrifying ferocity. It would make the Iraq occupation look like the weekend war in Grenada. The birthplace of Islam would become the site of a pitched battle between casualty-spooked Americans and iron-willed fanatics. It is a war we could lose, a harrowing quagmire we may have to shoot our way through because we may not be given a choice. It would test America's mettle and nerve more than any single conflict since the Vietnam War.


It is a worst-case scenario, but I need to know: Do the Democrats have the belly for that?


Be the Party of Roosevelt


Though the Democratic base may be reflexively anti-war when Republicans control the White House, the Democratic Party is not an anti-war party.


The four most pivotal wars of the 20th Century were led by Democrats; World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam. Bill Clinton deployed US troops more times than any other president since the Vietnam War. And this was during the so-called peace between the Cold War and the Terror War. Up to 90 percent of Americans, including the overwhelming majority of Democrats, supported the 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan.


The Democratic Party has a pacifist McGovern wing. But the party of Clinton can still be the party of Roosevelt.


Be the Party of Wilson


In 1917 Democratic president Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany to make the world "safe for democracy." At the end of the day, this is why America fights. No foreign enemy since the dawn of the 20th Century has threatened the United States with a ground invasion. Not Adolf Hitler, not Emperor Hirohito, not Josef Stalin, not Kim Il Sung, not Manuel Noriega, not Slobodan Milosovic, not Mullah Omar, and not Saddam Hussein. Some of them attacked us, and some of them did not. Yet every one was a ruthless dictator. We held back or defeated them all.


An old left-wing slogan says Fascism Means War. Slap it on a bumper sticker. Now is not the time to retire it. Our enemies in the Terror War are totalitarian religious fanatics, everything liberals and the left despise. They killed and enslaved millions on the other side of the world. Then they attacked our country. They are not, as Franz Fanon put it, the wretched of the earth. They are the murderers and oppressors of the wretched of the earth.


Third World liberation is an old cause of the left. Marxists hijacked that dream and shackled it in a labor camp. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Terror War is our chance to make it right.


The Democrats must support without apologies the spread of liberalism and democracy to all. Be the champions of freedom for every human being. Address the root cause of terror by striking at its source; tyranny over the body and mind of man.


The Terror War will outlast the Bush administration, and America's enemies know it. Surely they look eagerly forward to President Bush's retirement. Let us not make them smile on that day.


Michael J. Totten writes from Portland, Oregon. Visit his web log at


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