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July 09, 2006

The Crux of Lieberman's Problem
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Lieberman_joe_smiling I have reluctantly gotten sucked into caring about the fate of Joe Lieberman's quest to hold on to his Senate seat.  What interests me is how the contest ties into a larger debate underway about how big the progressive tent should be when it comes to foreign policy:  where should boundaries be drawn so that we can compete in moderate and even conservative strongholds, yet still energe the base and stand for something that is clear to voters.  This is shaping up to be one of the principal dilemmas progressives will face leading up to 2008.

Reading through the transcript of Lieberman's debate last Thursday with challenger Ned Lamont, here's where I come out:  Lieberman's problem is not that he supported the Iraq invasion, nor that he thinks we need to stay in and finish the job.  He has lots of mainstream Democratic company in both those positions.   Kiss aside, his problem is also not simply being too close to Bush or disloyal to the Dems.  As he points out, he's voted the Democratic party line 90 percent of the time.

The crux of Lieberman's problem is his unwillingness to acknowledge the severity of what's happened in Iraq, and to demand accountability for it.   Iraq has now replaced 9/11 as America's "prism of pain" - - the trauma-tinged lens through which everything else is viewed.  Everyone from Chuck Hagel to Richard Holbrooke to Ret. General William Odom has judged Iraq worse than Vietnam.   Against that backdrop, its just not enough for Lieberman to quickly state that he's previously been "critical" of the Administration's post-invasion errors, and then move on to an impassioned plea about why we can't leave Iraq now. 

No matter what they believe we must do next, any candidate who doesn't come to grips fully with the folly of Iraq risks political oblivion.  While the public may be over debates on the manipulation of pre-war intelligence, they know that things went badly wrong en route to and in Iraq, and that no one has paid for these avoidable and costly errors.  Given the severity of the consequences of the war, the public is right to demand a sharp focus on what went wrong, why and who bears responsibility. 

Lieberman professes no interest in these questions, seeming to believe they should all be subsumed by overriding loyalty to the president amidst the threat of terror.  The public may have believed that for a year or two after the 9/11 attacks, but their trust has been exploited too many times by the White House, and they simply no longer do.

In Thursday's debate, Lieberman tried valiantly to tar Lamont with flip-flopping over what ought to happen in Iraq next.  It didn't seem to work, and is also a dangerous tack for any politician to take.  For the first few years of the Iraq conflict progressives offered Bush advice galore - don't disband the Iraqi military; solicit more international troops; turn the reins of reconstruction over to the UN. 

Most of this was ignored, and by the time Bush acknowledged some of the guidance was sound, conditions on the ground had worsened to the point where it was unimplementable. 

At this stage in the game, nearly anyone thoughtful and honest admits to real qualms about what makes sense in Iraq.  Under these conditions, forceful and unequivocal game plans are not just elusive, but probably dangerous.  The public recognizes this, which is why there was no political price for the June Congressional debates that showed the Democrats divided over what to do next.   

When asked in the debate about what it means to be a Democrat, Lieberman cited JFK and intoned: 

America's mission is to pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, and oppose any foe to assure the success and survival of liberty. In our time, the Democratic Party has been the great hope of people rising in our country, and it remains that way.

The words are great, and progressives do need to reclaim a lofty sense of vision along the lines of what Kennedy offered.  But we won't succeed in doing so without acknowledging the grievous errors of Iraq, and the years of effort it will take to undo the damage.  No one - not in America and not abroad - would support an expansive definition of Lieberman's first sentence above right now:  we're simply too over-extended, too unpopular, and too internally divided to boldly and assertively take on the foes of liberty right now.  It's frightening to acknowledge that, but most Americans have done so and Lieberman needs to as well.  Wishing Iraq out of the way doesn't make it so.


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It's heartening to hear that North Americans feel that their trust has been exploited - I know I do - but I wonder where that observation comes from. I don't see it. I see us going about our business, with the occasional lip service to "supporting the troops." I'm a member of the armed forces and people come up to me often to thank me for my service. It embarasses me on many levels - I'm not serving in Iraq and probably never will. But what I want to tell them is, if you want to thank me, and all the other service men and women, then do your part to make us less dependant on foreign oil, fall out of love with violence, and demand accountability from the administration and the media. Every day, on every issue. That would be a real thank you for me.

The problem is that Lieberman supports Israel's right to exist while Ned Lamont supporters want to avenge Yasser Arafat.

Iraq is a side-issue.

Because of Lieberman's public connection with Bush, I can see why it is essential for him to acknowledge the disaster that is Iraq. But for Democrats in general, I think Joe Public is tired of hearing the same story about the administration's mistakes.

It seems to me, the issue is at nearly full-saturation. If you don't believe Iraq is/was a mistake now, you probably never will. It's time to try something new.

"where should boundaries be drawn so that we can compete in moderate and even conservative strongholds..." -- Suzanne

That's an important point, but has no relevance to this primary. Connecticut's a blue state. Politically there's no excuse for Lieberman's dishonest semi-defense of Abu Ghraib, his waffling on social security, or his authoritarian comment in the Wall St Journal that anyone who disagrees with Bush is putting our country in danger. Not to mention the fact that his view on Iraq is objectively delusional.

But what I want to tell them is, if you want to thank me, and all the other service men and women, then do your part to make us less dependant on foreign oil, fall out of love with violence, and demand accountability from the administration and the media.

Well said, jnm.

Iraq is not a bigger mistake than Vietnam and to say so is simply silly. Within the political context not coming to grips with the "folly" of Iraq might be a large problem for democrats but it's just hyperbole to say this applies to everyone.

There are still many millions of Americans who firmly believe Iraq, WMD or no WMD, was and is a correct long term geo-political objective. These people might be wrong but the Dems have never put forth a competing policy. Spreading democracy in the Mid East might actually be folly as a long term strategy and it might certainly be folly to try and impose it militaritly. It was certainly folly to underestimate all the myriad problems there were and are in Iraq.

There is nothing wrong with running against Iraq or even simply how it's being run but it seems most Dems simply are for pulling out now and leaving Iraq to stand or fall with little or no help from the nation that invaded them. If that is your postition fine but there is still not any positive policy view that is apparent to me. If might be the judgement of the Democratic party it need not stand for anything but rather only against something but it's not clear from history that this is actually so- much less folly.

Lane Brody

What Mr. Brody said.

As I am not a Democrat I don't have strong feelings on the Joe Lieberman situation. I would, though, point out something that most Democrats seem to miss.

In a political environment that sees incumbent politicians reelected the great majority of the time and usually with scant opposition, one might expect elected officials to develop a substantial sense of personal entitlement. And we do in fact see this a lot. Readers will recall that Sen. Lieberman ran for reelection in 2000 when he was also running for Vice President; the law didn't say he couldn't, and he thought he was entitled to it. The voters agreed. If he loses the primary this month, and runs as an independent, it will be because he thinks he deserves a Senate seat, not because he is a prisoner of his conscience on Iraq.

Now, is this bad? I suppose that depends on whether one thinks Lieberman has been a good Senator, how much or how little one thinks of his opponent(s), and how much store one sets on the views of party leaders or activists of various kinds. As I say, I don't have strong views on the subject. I will say that a strong sense of personal entitlement is not an unambiguously desirable trait in a elected official -- the more so in an age when it is characteristic of most elected officials.

I was against the war and I am against the way Lieberman is acting. But this is no reason to try to knock him out of office.

If he loses to Lamont and becomes an independent, the Democratic vote will be split and the Republican will win.

We're cutting off our nose to spite our face. This is ridiculous. If Democrats keep this up, Republicans will stay in power.

Another Bush enabler.

Watch Loose Change, 2nd ed., free on the web. When are we going to hold them accountable for their 9/11 false-flag operation?

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