The America-haters who want America to lose

TNR's Lawrence Kaplan put forth a wonderful piece, back in fall 2003, on the willingness of the American people to endure military casualties in the pursuit of victory. It is a commonplace that this willingness is shallow in the post-Second World War era: Americans simply do not wish to suffer, and do not have the senses of patriotism, pride, and honor that buffered such suffering for earlier generations. It is true, I think, that these qualities are less evident now than they were in the past. The ability of a society to see through grinding conflicts like the Philippines Insurrection or the Boer War augers well for its future, lest it lose the mere capacity to conquer, and be susceptible to humiliation by any small power with no advantage save mental fortitude. It is indeed difficult to imagine now the methods that transformed the Philippines for us, and South Africa for the British, from bitter foe to steadfast friend being applied in Iraq. Would that they were. But patriotism, pride, and honor are nonetheless still present in the American character. It is the American political class that lacks them in corresponding measure.

Kaplan's essay, reprinted here, invokes two military debacles of the recent past: Beirut in 1983, and Mogadishu in 1993. Each featured a shocking toll of Americans killed in spectacular fashion, and each saw a swift American withdrawal thereafter. The respective retreats were justified by the political leadership on the grounds that the American people had thereby turned against the mission. Kaplan demolishes this rationale, noting that in each case, American popular support for decisive action rose in the aftermath of the respective tragedies, collapsing only after the political leadership decided to withdraw. This pattern is shown to hold true even against the mythos of Vietnam: Americans turned away from that cause not because of the toll in young men, but because they lost their belief in the political leadership's will or ability to win.

The present war in Iraq is no different. Americans voted against the Republicans last week in large part because of their disgust with its course and conduct. They have every right to be appalled -- the war has indeed been mismanaged from the beginning, and the political party responsible for that must pay a price. But they did not vote for defeat. The flameout of antiwar left-wing darling Ned Lamont in solidly blue Connecticut is evidence enough for that. Americans wanted Republicans out of power, and that is not synonymous with -- nor a metaphor for -- Americans out of Iraq.

Pitiably, the Democrats who benefitted from voter discontent are now empowered to misinterpret it to their own disadvantage and dishonor. Last March, I wrote on the Democratic ploy of the "Fighting Dems" -- Democratic veterans put forth to mislead voters about that party's competence and grasp in military affairs. I noted that most of these veterans did not believe in a retreat from Iraq; and I noted that the Democratic party at large surely did. Now that the Democrats have the Congress, they are showing their true colors: stories from the New York Times and Reuters tell us that they are pressing for a retreat from the battlefield under the euphemism of "redeployment." Instead of using their newfound power to seek ways to win, they will use it to seek ways to run. This is entirely unsurprising. Given the opportunity to take a bad situation and transform it into outright defeat, they are seizing it with both hands.

There is a silver lining from a partisan standpoint: Republicans, having tarnished their national-security credentials over the past six years, may burnish them by reminding Americans of the Democrats' propensity for doing far worse. But one would rather have the country do well, even at the expense of partisan advantage. The wish for wartime victory is, of course, a basic desire of the patriot of any party. It is a wish that the Democrats at large do not have, and its absence tells us all we need to know about them and theirs. A pity that those who will suffer the most will not be them, but the foreign lands and peoples whom we may shortly abandon.

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