Digby’s right: when Democrats like Al Franken (of all people), who’s up for re-election in two years, start making very public noises to the effect that they’re “troubled” the Obama administration “has not yet developed a comprehensive strategy to address the growing threat of lSIL’s activities in Syria,” you can be sure what they’re attempting to do is throw down markers which they can point to later, if – as they fear – someone on the right tries to call them wimps for being insufficiently militaristic. This, they presume, will inoculate them at the polls next election from such an attack. They think if they’re thusly attacked, they’ll be able to point to these Sternly Worded Letters™ as evidence of their willingness to send other people’s children to war against the enemy-du-jour, which (they fondly imagine) will allow them to then execute a neat pivot onto a different, less military response to the threat posed by ISIS.
The trouble with doing this is that it never works out that way. Having tossed down such saber-rattling markers becomes both self-sustaining and self-fulfilling. Sadly, what way too many Democratic politicians still appear not to understand is that once they’ve tried to preemptively fend off conservative charges of insufficient martial virtue (or whatever ridiculous name the pants-wetters have thought up lately to convey Democratic perfidy on matters of war), they’ve completely ceded the terms of the debate to the neocon warhawks. The result is always that any Democrat trying to make such preemptive moves becomes stuck with that position. It becomes a set of handcuffs not even Houdini could escape from. Once Democrats start down those tracks, getting off the train at any point until US boots have hit the ground will perversely result in exactly what the hapless Democrat who mistakenly thought (s)he was insulating him/herself from all along: subtle (or often, not so subtle) excoriation as a limp-wristed, incompetent, Muslim (or commie, or both)-loving nincompoop. In short: every ridiculous, derogatory stereotype in the book about Democrats and war.
This silly spiral is how we got into Iraq in the first place, in fact. After 9/11, Democrats, battered by years of stern GOP daddies’ abuse as soft on crime, war, etc – and facing the 2002 midterm elections against an increasingly strong-looking President who’d recently stood heroically atop a pile of rubble in New York with a bullhorn, looking (if only momentarily) like a plausibly non-insane facsimile of John Wayne – panicked. They fell in line almost as if they too were merely children of a lesser GOP, and the march to war became inevitable.
The truly sad part is: none of it – neither the position-taking nor the seemingly unstoppable slide towards war – was inevitable then, and it is not inevitable now. The problem, both then and now, was never Democrats’ unwillingness or inability to “confront” terrorism, but rather their fear of confronting Republicans and their housebroken, adjective-confecting pilot fish in the media. The way to dispense with such charges is first, for Democrats to not panic and do the GOP’s work for them by painting themselves into a rhetorical corner from which they cannot escape. Behave as if rushing to war is the outlier position, and force the GOP or the media to make such charges themselves, don’t do them the favor of leveling the charges against yourself (and the administration) for them. Then, if and when some gasbag pumps him or herself up and actually does level such charges, remind them that
- Democrats successfully engaged and conducted both World Wars,
- The results from the most recent data we have on a Republican attempting to deal with a very similar modern threat to the one faced now didn’t speak very well of the entire “bombs away” line of thought, and
- The question they should be asking is not whether Democrats are capable of carrying out military options (they clearly are), but whether a military response is the RIGHT response, whether we’ve exhausted (or even explored) other options, not just in a pro forma way but because they might actually produce better results overall than yet another resort to “bombs away.”
On that last note (as Digby also pointed out in a separate post), Peter Beinart (who appears to have learned his own lesson from being one of the early cheerleaders of the last war in Iraq) offers quite a bit to chew on as far as other, better options in Syria than simply bomb people and see what happens. Bottom line: prolonged, problematic, costly military engagement in Syria is NOT the only – or even the best – option. It’s also not even close to inevitable, unless Democrats, including the President, allow it. But unless a “coalition of the willing” amongst the Democrats can muster the vision and the spine to do what Democrats everywhere have been telling themselves and anyone else who would listen for the last dozen years they would do, next time (i.e. – not allow themselves to be swept along into war by the fear of being wrong and the fear of electoral punishment from Republicans for being “soft on terror”), it’s not going to happen magically by itself.
Last stray thought: Al Franken was not a Senator in 2002/3, and therefore didn’t have to make the decisions many of his colleagues did. It may be, sadly, that he too has to learn this lesson the way Dems and moderates from Hillary Clinton to Peter Beinart did: by pissing on the electric fence and suffering the consequences.