My cover story for this month’s American Conservative argues that Iraq has done for the GOP what Vietnam did to Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats—that is, it not only has wrecked the party’s reputation but has tainted the cultural values proclaimed by the party.
Republicans were pretty deft in response to Johnson’s military failures: Nixon and Reagan staked out ground that let them appear to be both more patriotic than the Democrats and less likely to start wars that they couldn’t finish. Americans didn’t much like Johnson’s war, and they liked the antiwar movement even less. Republicans found a way to run against both.
The realignment brought about during the Vietnam era is now cracking up, and that’s the thrust of my cover story. But a crackup doesn’t happen all at once, and as recently as a decade ago the skids to the war in Iraq were greased by an antiwar movement that, as Rod Dreher notes, looked and sounded all too much like the movement against the Vietnam War. The protesters brought back bad memories for much of the public, and they fit neatly into the caricatures warhawks had drawn—of radical leftists who might have sat beside Hanoi Jane on the NVA’s anti-aircraft guns if they’d had chance.
That’s certainly not a fair description of all anti-Iraq War protesters. It’s not even a fair description of most anti-Vietnam War protesters. But in mass politics perception counts. Vietnam protesters had a bad reputation with much of the public, and Iraq protesters who aped their activism naturally came in for the same rep. And even beyond those associations, what was a normal person meant to think about protesters with puppets? For “Sesame Street,” puppets may be an effective education tool, but adults aren’t accustomed to thinking about foreign policy—to the extent they think about it at all—in terms of following whomever demonstrates the most impressive papier-mâché skills.
When I make this argument to left-wingers, I’m typically met with one of the following responses. 1.) “We have to do something!”—as if doing something that’s ineffective or counterproductive earns brownie points. 2.) “That’s a smear!”—you bet it’s a smear, but what are you doing to establish a more sympathetic image in the public’s mind instead? 3.) “Well, what do you suggest?”—what I suggest is not something any “activist” wants to hear: don’t take any action until you understand public opinion in some detail and can relate every individual tactic you propose to a specific, demonstrated mechanism that gives it a chance to be effective.
I’ve attended a lot of right-wing political workshops, incubators for the Future Karl Roves of America. The point I would make to right-wing political pros is that the best technology and most tested field techniques in the world won’t help you once your imprudent, unprincipled politics have wrecked the middle class and launched a few Asian land wars that a Democratic president has to end for you. The right learned how to win very, very well over the last 40 years, but completely forget why it was fighting in the first place. (Even getting power for its own sake became incoherent as a goal: Nixon may have wanted power for its own sake, but he understood that in order to get and keep it, one has to have a certain basic competence—though he let his paranoia outstrip it.)
The antiwar left has the opposite problem, it’s all heart and no brain. Except that lets the left off too lightly: there’s brain enough in keeping the old networks of financial support for the same futile kinds of activism going and going and going. It’s a job, right? Or it’s a habit: I don’t know how much of the activist reflex is cynical, how much is naive, and how much is sheer inertia—but usually it’s a mistake to underestimate the last.
Sheer fatigue did more than any antiwar movement to end the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. In the latter case especially it’s hard to imagine the war lasting any longer if there had never been an antiwar movement. Even Cindy Sheehan—who for a while, as the mother of a veteran killed in action,commanded more sympathy than the rest of the antiwar movement—doesn’t seem to have shortened the war to any appreciable degree. She became a widely known public figure in 2005, two years into the war, which continued for another six. But she at least advanced the preliminary work of breaking down the emotional patterns that had previously prevented much of the public from thinking critically about the war. Sympathy counts for more than outrage.
Most of all, though, the sheer bitter experience of a decade of war has changed the way Americans, especially the younger ones, feel about an activist foreign policy. The upshot is much the same as it was in the Vietnam era: the country is sick of war, even if it’s never warmed to the anti-warriors.