June 23, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

Family Feuds: Some of the Best Fights Take Place Within the Parties

The media – television in particular — tend to view every issue through a partisan lens: Republicans vs. Democrats, liberals vs. conservatives. Convenient as this shorthand may be, it loses sight of the fact that the most consequential conflicts often take place within the major parties and movements.

For example, a sharp national security debate has broken out on the right. On one side are the so-called neo-conservatives who are convinced that killing terrorists is not enough. It's also necessary, they believe, to try hard to extend freedom to those now living under the dictatorships that breed intolerance, hatred and terrorism. 

That agenda is opposed by what are sometimes called “neo-realists” who argue that government officials and bureaucrats haven't the skills to transform foreign political cultures, and that only the arrogant and the naïve believe otherwise. Bad enough, they say, that liberals entertain notions of “nation building.” For conservatives to indulge in these pipe dreams is beyond the pale.

A similar debate is taking place on the other side of the political spectrum. Such tribunes of the left as The Nation magazine furiously denounce the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq. More than a few left-wingers speak approvingly of Iraqi “resistance” to what they charge is an “illegal” U.S. occupation.

But that perspective is disputed by Christopher Hitchens, a longtime icon of the left. He argues that in the wake of 9/11, there was no choice but “to make the worst assumption about any report on Saddam's capacity for lethality,” and to operate “at all times on the presumption of guilt. As a civilian, I would have wanted to criticize any Western government that did not err deliberately on this side.” What's more, as a liberationist, Hitchens believes there is no finer thing a democracy can do than to break the shackles of tyrants.

British author William Shawcross, years ago an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, agrees. He wrote recently that “the prevailing images of Iraq today – that it is a hopeless war zone and that Iraqis do not want us there – are wrong. The challenge now is to help Iraq rebuild after the monstrous assault of the Saddam Hussein years. If the country collapsed into chaos or, worse, civil war, the consequences would be disastrous. Conversely, success – the building of a civil society in a region of oppression – would benefit all.”

The current issue of the liberal New Republic showcases this family quarrel with a cover story headlined: “Were We Wrong?” The magazine asked a dozen writers, academics and politicians for second thoughts. More than a few now repent their former hawkishness. “If I had known that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” writes Leon Wieseltier, the magazine's literary editor, “I would not have supported this war.” 

By contrast, scholar Fouad Ajami sticks to his guns. He writes that those who supported Iraq's liberation “dared to think that tyranny was not fated and inevitable for the Arabs. And even as this war falls short of what we had wanted, it was an honorable and noble expedition that came after a decade of relentless anti-American subversion and terrorism.”

Within the Democratic Party, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is emerging as the strongest and clearest proponent of a robust War on Terrorism combined with an energetic push for freedom and human rights. By so dong, he insists, he is not breaking with his party's tradition and legacy – he's preserving it.

“Democrats with a capital ‘D' have long been ready to stand up and fight for democracy with a small ‘d,'” he said last week. “We must and will stand up and fight for democracy in Iraq today.”

Keynoting a bipartisan symposium on “The Future of Iraq and the War on Terrorism” (sponsored by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies), the Senator listed some of the Democratic heroes of the past whose principles he and other moderate Democrats are championing.

 “The ideals for which we fight in Iraq today are ‘Wilsonian,'” he said. “And they were upheld and advanced by other Democratic leaders against freedom's foes in their time, leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Henry M. Jackson, Bill Clinton.”

Some Democrats abandoned these ideas the minute President Bush and other Republicans began to make a case for them. Others have gone wobbly as the going has gotten tough in Iraq.

But a few Democrats have not flinched. Jim Marshall served as an Airborne-Ranger in Vietnam where he and received two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He is now a congressman from Georgia.

“Nothing threatens the liberal agenda more than failure in the war in Iraq,” Marshall recently wrote. “Those who care about civil liberties, peace and humanitarian causes undermine their own goals unless they exercise restraint, foresight, character and resolve on this one issue. Hard though it may be to accept, even peace activists should support this war. … Whatever your view of the wisdom or justification for invading Iraq, it's done. Perhaps we've stirred up a hornets' nest. So be it. The hornets were coming for us sooner or later anyway.”

It's too soon to say which views will come to prevail in either of the two political parties. At the moment, the post-humanitarian left appears ascendant, as does the neo-realist right. Ironically, the two tendencies are not so far apart.

But then, more unites than divides Wilsonian Democrats and neo-cons, as well.

You've heard that politics makes for strange bedfellow? Sometimes, it appears, the same is true of policy.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.