Jonathan Schell on the Kerry Mandate

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Remember the pundits who swore that sides were so set in this election, political minds so made up that Kerry would be lucky for the tiniest “convention bounce”? Well, perhaps this is the year to ignore much of the punditry that rules our media lives. (When you see that chipmunk grin of George Stephanopoulis, just grab your zapper and go looking for Seinfeld reruns.) After all, if a year ago, you had claimed that on July 30, 2004, the Democrats would emerge from their convention as an energized, “unified” party ready to roll, who would have believed you? For two months now, there’s been extraordinary anxiety over (and so news value in) the “dead heat” horse race of the election, and then the other day a Washington Post/ABC poll seemed to show Kerry slipping. Panic!

But, as this convention ends, it’s important to put the present into some modest perspective. Go back to, say, the “mission accomplished” moment, or any time in the six months thereafter, and if I had told you that, at the time of the Democratic Convention, John Kerry and George Bush would be running neck and neck in the polls, 19 out of any 20 pundits and news analysts (not to speak of Democratic Party officials) would have laughed in your face and the tenth would probably have been working for Tricycle magazine, the Buddhist publication.

Yet even before last night, a convention bump, according the latest Zogby poll, was evidently in the works. Kerry, previously in that “dead-heat” or “losing ground to Bush,” was said to hold a five-point lead even before he delivered his zinger of an acceptance speech. (Best lines: “I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of the military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who will uphold the Constitution of the United States.”) It certainly helped that the same pundits had set the media bar for Kerry’s speechmaking abilities underground where the living dead reside. And it helped that the Republican “July surprise” — the sudden announcement of the arrest of an HVT (high value al-Qaeda target) in Pakistan some days earlier just as the New Republic had predicted weeks before — hardly seemed to dent the Democrats’ moment. But amid the celebrations of the speech and the polls of the passing second, there is perhaps reason to take a deep counter-celebratory breath.

With his acceptance speech last night John Kerry effectively sealed what I called, in a recent report from the convention, the Democrats’ “front-room deal.” As the post-speech Convention stage indicated, there wasn’t a Democrat in the house who wasn’t “unified.” Everyone from Dennis Kucinich to Joe Lieberman was on board (and note, by the way, that the final night was distinctly the night of the hawks). Though the delegates at the convention were clearly anti-the Iraq War and eager to end it in a way John Kerry isn’t — as everyone I met on the Convention floor had no hesitation to tell me (or other reporters either) — they had with forethought set the issue aside in favor of defeating George Bush, and so rose countless times with, I believe, genuine enthusiasm to applaud a nominee whose only significant comment on any war (“As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war”) was an implicit pledge to continue waging it.

Two nights before, the anti-war candidate who sparked it all, Howard Dean had pledged fealty (“I may not be the nominee, but I can tell you this: For the next 100 days, I’ll be doing everything that I can to make sure that John Kerry and John Edwards take this country back for the people who built it”) and in his speech devoted exactly one half of one mild line to the war (“a foreign policy that relies on the president of the United States telling the truth to the American people before we send our brave soldiers to fight in a foreign war.”); while Dennis Kucinich, the only antiwar candidate to stay the course almost to the end, did the same. And they weren’t exactly alone. Though there was a fair amount of media discussion of the way Kerry’s people had “edited” almost all the speeches to keep “Bush bashing” and “anti-war talk” to a minimum, don’t be fooled: This wasn’t simply a Kerry-enforced mandate. The delegates were in on it, and the Democratic primary voters were actually the ones who initiated it at a time when John Kerry had just mortgaged his house and was incapable of mandating anything whatsoever.

Republicans aside, only one key group wasn’t on board last night — but they may be the crucial group, given the subject that has made a Kerry candidacy possible. Before Democratic voters ever created the Kerry Mandate, this group made it possible and yet none of them spoke on any of the four Convention nights or pledged fealty to Kerry or any other candidate. None of them were, in fact, within many thousands of miles of the Fleet Center. They weren’t the ghost detainees, but the ghostly undetained of this convention. Because the Bush administration couldn’t shut them down or somehow turn them off, torture them away, or crush their ragtag resistance, they created the vulnerable Bush presidency which made the Kerry Mandate possible. They are the various shades and factions of Iraqi resisters and insurgents, former Baathists and new-made Islamists, angry farmers, outraged city dwellers, not to speak of common thugs and bandits — in short, the Iraqi resistance and Iraqi chaos all rolled into one that has come to replace “mission accomplished.”

Yesterday, as a shower of mortars onto American bases (and a further trickle of American war dead) indicated, as the horrific car bombing in Baquba showed (with its great gash of Iraqi dead), as more kidnappings and beheadings of truckers made clear, whoever they may be, they are rushing toward November 2 and beyond, no less energized than Democrats or Republicans and no less determined.

Here are a few lines I noticed deep into a Khalid al-Ansary and Ian Fisher Iraq piece in the New York Times yesterday (Are Killed By Car Bomber In an Iraqi City)

“In downtown Baghdad, one person was reported killed and several wounded when a projectile struck a residential street alley near Haifa Street, the site of several recent police raids and firefights. Two cars were blackened and burnt in the alley. An angry crowd gathered at the site, and before chasing away a group of Western reporters and firing a shot over their heads, one resident said an American Apache helicopter had fired on the street. An American military spokesman, however, said he was unaware of any such attack. Insurgents often fire rockets and mortars in Baghdad, many of which miss their targets and hit residential areas.”

Imagine, this is the capital of “our” Iraq where just yesterday in the Green Zone (yes, it’s still there and we’re still locked inside), according to Fisher and Somini Sengupta of the Times, “a notice went out saying meal service was being cut back to military rations and cold cuts ‘due to unforeseen circumstances.’ An American official said the reason was that Pakistani workers in the Green Zone went on strike after the two Pakistani hostages were executed the day before.” And more truckers (and trucking firms) seem to be leaving the country daily in this new guerrilla-war-by-supply-line-strangulation in which things are only likely to get worse. This, not the Democrats, is really what has driven George Bush to the edge of a disaster he never even dreamed possible — and it could, all too quickly, do the same for a future Kerry administration.

This is what no Democrat should be celebratory about. As Jonathan Schell makes so clear below, in a piece the Nation magazine has been kind enough to share with Tomdispatch and that was written before Kerry gave his speech, the Kerry mandate is a dangerous one. Even should he win, he seems — on the theory that Iraq is indeed “Vietnam on crack cocaine” — to be heading directly into Washington’s well-known Credibility Gulch (aka “Who lost Iraq?”) and, with angry Republicans out of power and holding his feet to the flames, into what could be essentially a six-month (or maybe even six-week) presidency.

This is the Democratic bargain, interpret it as you will. There will be victors — and we saw evidence of them last night — but perhaps in the end, not Kerry, even if he wins. In what the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks in PBS commentary last night called, with some admiration, a “nationalist” speech, in a hall that was so much flag wallpaper, amid the serried ranks of old Vietnam-era shipmates and generals, and with all that “strength” circling the electronic walls, and promises of 40,000 more troops and a doubling of the number of Special Forces, the winner was certainly an engorged Pentagon (and an increasingly engorged new American atmosphere of pure militarism), which — no matter the winning party — will only grow larger; and our multiple intelligence agencies which couldn’t be seen, of course, but will also grow yet more obese under a Kerry or a Bush administration (on all of which, more to come here soon). Last night — there can be no question — John Kerry accepted the nomination not to be President but to be, as speakers on the podium reminded us again and again, Commander-in-Chief of a country, in Kerry’s (as in George Bush’s) phrase “at war.”

In the meantime, consider Jonathan Schell’s latest “Letter from Ground Zero” and the problems the Kerry mandate and the front-room Democratic deal are likely to bring in their wake. We face in all this a conundrum wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pretzel. The question is who will choke on the pretzel this time around? Tom

Strong and Wrong
by Jonathan Schell

“During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current President, the Vice President and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn’t. John Kerry came from a privileged background. He could have avoided going, too. But instead he said, ‘Send me.’

“When they sent those Swift Boats up the river in Vietnam… John Kerry said, ‘Send me.’

“And then when America needed to extricate itself from that misbegotten and disastrous war, Kerry donned his uniform once again, and said, ‘Send me’; and he led veterans to an encampment on the Washington Mall, where, in defiance of the Nixon Justice Department, they conducted the most stirring and effective of the protests, that forced an end to the war.

“And then, on my watch, when it was time to heal the wounds of war and normalize relations with Vietnam…John Kerry said, ‘Send me.'”

So spoke President Clinton at the Democratic Convention–except that he did not deliver the third paragraph about Kerry’s protest; I made that up. The speech cries out for the inclusion of Kerry’s glorious moment of antiwar leadership; and its absence is as palpable as one of those erasures from photographs of high Soviet officials after Stalin had sent them to the gulag. Clinton’s message was plain.

Military courage in war is honored; civil courage in opposing a disastrous war is not honored. Even thirty years later, it cannot be mentioned by a former President who himself opposed the Vietnam War. The political rule, as Clinton once put it in one of the few pithy things he has ever said, “We [Democrats] have got to be strong…. When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”

And now the United States is engaged in a war fully as wrong as the one in Vietnam. The boiling core of American politics today is the war in Iraq and all its horrors: the continuing air strikes on populated cities; the dogs loosed by American guards on naked, bound Iraqi prisoners; the kidnappings and the beheadings; the American casualties nearing a thousand; the 10,000 or more Iraqi casualties; the occupation hidden behind the mask of an entirely fictitious Iraqi “sovereignty”; the growing scrapheap of discredited justifications for the war. But little of that is mentioned these days by the Democrats. The great majority of Democratic voters, according to polls, ardently oppose the war, yet by embracing the candidacy of John Kerry, who voted for the Congressional resolution authorizing the war and now wants to increase the number of American troops in Iraq, the party has made what appears to be a tactical decision to hide its faith.

The strong and wrong position won out in the Democratic Party when its voters chose Kerry over Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. An antiwar party rallied around a prowar candidate. The result has been one of the most peculiar political atmospheres within a party in recent memory. The Democrats are united but have concealed the cause that unites them. The party champions free speech that it does not practice. As a Dennis Kucinich delegate at the convention said to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, “Peace” is “off-message.” A haze of vagueness and generality hangs over party pronouncements. In his convention speech, President Carter, who is on record opposing the war, spoke against “pre-emptive war” but did not specify which pre-emptive war he had in mind. Al Gore, who has been wonderfully eloquent in his opposition to the war, was tame for the occasion. “Regardless of your opinion at the beginning of this war,” he said, “isn’t it now abundantly obvious that the way this war has been managed by the Administration has gotten us into very serious trouble?”

What of the antiwar sentiment that is still in truth at the heart of most Democrats’ anger? It has been displaced downward and outward, into the outlying precincts of American politics. The political class as a whole has proved incapable of taking responsibility for the future of the nation, and the education of the American public has been left to those without hope of office. Like a balloon that squeezed at the top expands at the base, opposition to the war increases the farther you get from John Kerry. Carter and Gore can express a little more of it. Howard Dean, who infused the party with its now-muffled antiwar passion, can express more still. Representative Kucinich, a full-throated peace candidate, has endorsed Kerry and has kind words to say about him but holds fast to his antiwar position. On the Internet,,,,, and many others are buzzing and bubbling with honest and inspired reporting and commentary. Michael Moore is packing audiences into 2,000 theaters to see Fahrenheit 9/11.

I know, I know: It’s essential to remove George W. Bush from the White House, and Kerry is the instrument at hand. I fully share this sentiment. But I am not running for anything, and my job is not to carry water for any party but to stand as far apart from the magnetic field of power as I can and tell the truth as I see it. And it’s not too early to worry about the dangers posed by the Democrats’ strategy. In the first place, they have staked their future and the country’s on a political calculation, but it may be wrong. By suffocating their own passion, they may lose the energy that has brought them this far. They have confronted Bush’s policy of denial with a politics of avoidance. Bush is adamant in error; they are feeble in dedication to truth. If strong and wrong is really the winning formula, Bush may be the public’s choice. In the second place, if Kerry does win, he will inherit the war wedded to a potentially disastrous strategy. If he tries to change course, Republicans — and hawkish Democrats (Senator Joe Lieberman has just joined in a revival of the Committee on the Present Danger) — will not fail to remind him of his commitment to stay the course and renew the charge of flip-flopping. But the course, as retired Gen. Anthony Zinni has commented, may take the country over Niagara Falls. Then Kerry may wish that he and his admirers at this year’s convention had thought to place a higher value on his service to his country when he opposed the Vietnam War.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author, most recently, of A Hole in the World, a compilation of his “Letter From Ground Zero” columns, and of The Unconquerable World (just out in paperback).

This article will appear in the latest issue of The Nation magazine.

Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell