TCS Daily

Men of Words or Deeds?

By Carroll Andrew - July 1, 2005 12:00 AM

The leadership of the Democratic Party is offended by Karl Rove's June 22 statement that "liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." They have called for an apology and even his resignation. Certain liberal Senators, like Iowa's Tom have a legitimate complaint. Five days after the attack, Harkin plainly stated that "we will not give in to terrorists; we will not rest until they are found and defeated."

Rove and his defenders have not retreated from the remarks, but have instead emphasized their limited scope, pointing out that by "liberals" Rove meant "liberals" - and, in particular, liberal activist groups like MoveOn -- not "Democrats." This distinction might be more accurately characterized as liberals inside of government versus liberals outside of government. There were liberals outside of government who reacted to September 11 as extremely as Rove suggests.

The president of George Soros' Open Society Institute believed that an indictment was the proper initial response to September 11; "If there were such a [world] court and an international indictment, the Security Council could direct the government harboring the people who committed those crimes to turn them over for trial. If they weren't turned over for trial, the Security Council could authorize a military action in order to apprehend them." Writer Barbara Ehrenreich to borrow Charles Krauthammer's phrase, also wanted to go to court, and not to war; "I don't know how you wage war against one person; it doesn't make sense. I can imagine a commando-type raid to capture Bin Laden, then a trial, with evidence, before the world court". Physicians for Social Responsibility did not directly call for an indictment, but did want to pursue international legal action instead of war, declaring that "it is only within the framework of international cooperation and law that terrorism can be effectively addressed" and cautioning "against commencing a cycle of retaliatory attacks and reprisals that will only fuel further violence and erode the rule of law."

It is tempting to dismiss the reference to therapy as rhetorical hyperbole, but Columbia University professor Edward Said did not seem to rule out the idea of something akin to group therapy in his early response to September 11: "[W]e need to step back from the imaginary thresholds that separate people from each other and re-examine the labels, reconsider the limited resources available, decide to share our fates with each other as cultures mostly have done, despite the bellicose cries and creeds." And there were other suggestions even more outlandish than therapy. Writer Vivian Gornick suggested reparations; "force will get us nowhere. It is reparations that are owing, not retribution." Television commentator Bill Moyers proposed environmental conservation as a response to terrorism; "do we want to send the terrorists a message? Go for conservation. Go for clean, home-grown energy. And go for public health. If we reduce emissions from fossil fuel, we will cut the rate of asthma among children. Healthier children and a healthier economy - how about that as a response to terrorism?"

By mid-2002 many liberal and leftist groups opposing war had organized themselves around an organizational umbrella calling itself "Not in our Name". On June 14, 2002, the group published a petition/letter opposing the war in The Guardian, a British newspaper: "[W]e call on all Americans to resist the war and repression that has been loosed on the world by the Bush administration. It is unjust, immoral, and illegitimate. We choose to make common cause with the people of the world." No self-defense exception was made for American action in Afghanistan. The Not in Our Name petition may not have been an official statement of liberalism, but liberals were well represented amongst its signers, who included a collection of liberal Hollywood celebrities and political activists, such as Robert Altman, Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, Daniel Ellsberg, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, Katha Pollitt, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Oliver Stone, and Ben of Ben and Jerry's.

The most influential liberal activists outside of government - groups like the ACLU, or NOW, or People for the American Way - did not formally object to action in Afghanistan, or even to some form of military response to terrorism. The early antiwar response came mostly from the celebrity and artistic left, joined by a few activists whom Jonathan Alter described as mostly "silly artists analyzing politics" in an Oct.15, 2001, Newsweek article. Alter made note of an inadequacy in the liberal response to Sept. 11: "[W]hile moderate liberals ... seem to get who the bad guys are, some of their brethren farther left -- especially on college campuses -- are unforgivably out to lunch."

Karl Rove's remarks do accurately characterize this brand of liberalism. But it is legitimate to ask how influential this brand of liberalism is. Is there a real concern that liberal political leaders are incorporating the ideas of silly artists, celebrities, and activists into their decision making?

To answer this question, it is useful to remember that strange reactions to Sept. 11 did not emanate solely from the left. The most infamous reaction from the right came from Jerry Falwell, who had said he believed Sept. 11 involved divine punishment for American moral decline. Farwell said that organizations, such as the ACLU and People for the American Way, "which have attempted to secularize America, have removed our nation from its relationship with Christ on which it was founded. I therefore believe that that created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812."

Now, in domestic public policy debates, it is common for Republican critics to argue that religious fundamentalists wield too much power, yet this sentiment is rarely present in the consideration of Republican foreign policy. Why is minimal attention paid to the influences of the right fringe, while the influences of the left fringe are of great concern, when discussion turns to foreign policy?

The answer lies neither in the quick apology offered by Falwell, nor the repudiation of Falwell by the Bush administration. The answer is that the Bush administration is able to point to specific policies that repudiate Falwell's ideas. No one is worried that Falwell sympathizers drive American foreign policy because the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terrorism is wholly inconsistent with the dour view of America expressed by Falwell. An administration that believed that America was a decadent nation would not be using American power to unabashedly promote American ideals in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Actual policies are more effective than demanded apologies in dismissing the influence of fringe groups.

Rove's remarks sting Democrats because they have no comprehensive and specific anti-terrorism policy to present as a rebuttal. Democrats have developed no clear policy for confronting terrorist threats beyond Afghanistan, other than promising to respond after terrorists attack. There is suspicion that the Democratic Party has defaulted to a reactive national security position as the easy compromise between an activist liberal base skeptical of American power and professional Democratic pols who would rather focus on domestic affairs anyway. Democratic Congressional leaders have become so averse to thinking about terrorism in strategic terms, they prefer the sound-bite that there is "no connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq" to a critique or a rejection of the Bush administration's strategy of using democratization to smother terrorism.

Based on what Democrats are saying, the public cannot be sure that a Democratic leadership's post-Afghanistan anti-terrorism strategy will be any different from its pre-Sept. 11 strategy - when indictments really were the preferred tool. If Democrats and liberals truly want to marginalize the idea that they view indictments, therapy, a world court or conservation as primary tools for protecting Americans against terrorism, they need to do more than just reject the tools the Bush administration has applied or attack the administration's messengers. They need to tell the public what tools they would apply to the war on terror and where they would apply them.

If Democrats are unwilling to do this, they must accept the fact that a political party that does not want to talk specifics about a serious campaign against terrorism will be regarded as a party that does not want to lead a serious campaign against terrorism.


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