February 15, 2005 | Op-ed

Opposition During Wartime

By: Andrew Apostolou.

Opposing a government in wartime is proving to be a frustrating experience for the political enemies of president George W. Bush and prime minister Tony Blair. Against their expectations, Democrats saw President Bush re-elected with a majority of the popular vote last November. The Conservatives, Britain's main opposition party, lag behind Tony Blair's Labour Party in the opinion polls just months before a likely general election. How can they support the obvious good of a free Iraq but not support the government?

The goal of legitimately, and profitably, tripping up the government while not falling prey to accusations of opportunism is proving elusive. To make matters more challenging, Bush and Blair are hard to locate on the political map. Bush, a self-avowed conservative, has defined a progressive foreign policy that can be summarized as “Christopher Hitchens plus God.” Blair, a communitarian socialist who abhors prejudice and nationalism, had promoted Britain's role in reshaping the world after 9/11 with zest.

The first temptation is to accentuate the negative. It is understandable that in the midst of a much debated war in Iraq that no self-respecting opponent of the government would rush to lavish praise on the Iraqi elections.

The defeated candidate in the US presidential election, John Kerry, summarized this attitude on “NBC News' Meet the Press” television program on January 30, 2005. Kerry said that “No one in the United States should try to overhype this election,” (i.e. no favors for Bush). The senator then gave the Iraqi election a backhanded compliment, stating that it had “a kind of legitimacy” (i.e. it was only one step forward), before reminding viewers that he had supported the election (i.e. if credit is due, Kerry wants a part of it).

The problem with the Kerry maneuver is that it looks churlish. As Fred Hiatt wrote in The Washington Post on February 7, 2005, it makes Democrats “grumpy.” Worse still, the opposition can appear to crave bad news for the country for no other reason than setbacks in war are, by definition, detrimental to the government. Hitchens writing on September 27, 2004 in Slate denounced what he called the “vile spectacle” of Democrats hoping for bad news from Afghanistan and Iraq.

As if taking on the mantle of the gripe were not bad enough, past experience shows that talking down a government at war yields little benefit. After all, there was no lack of Congressional Republicans ready to complain and cavil when President Clinton bombed Iraq in December 1998 or launched the war to liberate Kosovo in March 1999. Yet the Republicans derived no noticeable electoral benefit from their posturing.

The supposed reward of this grudging attitude is that it allows politicians to be both pro- and anti-war at the same time. Superficially, the government's opponents can tap into both the sympathy that Americans have for Iraqis while appealing to the doubts that, according to opinion polls, many Americans still have about Iraq.

The danger of such a policy, as Senator Kerry discovered, is that it gifts the government an easy riposte — that the opposition is as steady as a weather vane, it is neither with us nor against us, but both. So while Senator Kerry maintained that he had been consistent on Iraq, his need to defend himself from Bush's charge of “flip-flop” on Iraq absorbed an inordinate amount of his precious campaign time.

The same charge of inconsistency has crossed the Atlantic. The Conservative Party in Britain, usually seen as pro-American, has been as critical of the prosecution of the Iraq war and its justification as the Democrats in the US have been. In a transatlantic oddity, the American left is now almost identical with the British right. As a result, Mr Blair has been able to hit back at the Conservatives with the British version of “flip flop” charge, declaring on October 13, 2004 that Conservative leader Michael had held at least four positions on the Iraq war, “three too many for anyone who seriously aspires to be Prime Minister.”

A second temptation is to be different, to come up with an alternative policy. One plan in the US, floated by leading Congressional Democrats, is to demand a timetable for the partial withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. Congressman Marty Meehan called on January 25, 2005 for US troop levels to be reduced to a 30,000 strong mobile reaction force by mid-2006. Senator Edward Kennedy asked for an immediate withdrawal of 12,000 of the 150,000 US troops in Iraq. While Senator Kennedy and Congressman Meehan's proposals were not particularly at odds with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's wish to see most US troops out of Iraq by 2008, they were poorly timed. Coming right before the January 30, 2005 Iraqi election, they struck the wrong note when Iraqis were about to movingly demonstrating their commitment to democratic change.

Before this sounds too bleak, there is an effective approach that the opposition can take, to hold both Bush and Blair's feet to the fire. In both the US and Britain the government's critics need not invent their own policy but should instead demand consistency in policy. This would allow both oppositions to be true to their own traditions. The Democrats in the US could recapture their legacy as the party that favours democracy and human rights abroad, while the British Conservatives might start to rebuild their ties to the US.

For all Bush and Blair's determination to press ahead in Iraq, their policy suffers from considerable weaknesses. An opposition that weds itself to democracy and justice in Iraq will find a large political gap between Bush and Blair's rhetorical aims and policy results. Britain and the US have yet to show that they have a sound counter insurgency strategy to defeat the remnants of Saddam's regime. The training and equipment of the Iraqi security forces has been slow. The leaders of the Ba'athist regime have yet to be put on trial and in some cases little has been done to reverse the effects of Saddam's crimes, such as the mass ethnic cleansing of Kurds from the Kirkuk region.

Democracy functions best when the government is opposed effectively. The irony for the Democrats in the US and Conservatives in Britain is that democracy in Iraq will be better supported by their own exercise of wise and effective opposition at home.

– The author is resident fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.