|The Crossover Speech
by William Greider
The so-called "established" Democratic candidates -- Senators Kerry,
Lieberman, Edwards and Representative Gephardt -- all face the same
suspenseful predicament. They wrong-footed historic events (and stiffed
their party's energized base) by choosing to support Bush's misguided
conquest of Iraq. These four men need to get right on the war -- the most
fundamental matter before the American people -- the sooner the better for
themselves but especially for the country's future. At present, the
pro-war candidates are trying to shift ground by escalating nuances --
stronger words and phrases to convey their alarm at Bush's mistakes and
deceptions. But basically they are merely repeating what people can see
for themselves. Expressions of concern won't cut it.
The next big move in the Democratic contest, I suggest, comes when one of
these four finds the skill and courage to make the crossover on this
profound question. That is, he delivers a well-reasoned, comprehensive
speech that declares his opposition to the president's aggression. He
explains, on reflection, why the strategy of "preemptive war" has not
really advanced the "war against terrorism" and why Bush's ill-considered
imperialist ambitions do not belong in America's foreign policy. This
move will be risky, of course, but so is sticking with their mugwump
posture. In principle, they support the open-ended war-making against
suspect nations that Bush has enunciated as U.S. policy. Only they don't
like the way this war is going. Unless they are willing to address the
larger questions of policy and purpose, they will rightly be associated
with a mess of vast and growing proportions.
So let's begin a conversation about how one or more of these men might
get out of the war box, how they can plausibly change their thinking, what
they might say in explanation. Contrition is good for the soul, but the
situation does require a mea culpa on bended knee in sack cloth and ashes
(though that would be satisfying to many angry Democrats). Any
repositioning is inescapably a strategic decision in the political
contest. How the shift is executed will say a lot about the candidate's
character and leadership, for better or worse. But put aside politics for
the moment. Assume that each of these candidates made the decision to
support Bush's war-making as a sincere personal judgment about national
security, not as a political calculation for self-protection. Substance
is what matters, after all, the substance of what these men know and
understand about the world.
If one of them becomes president, will he be any different in purpose
from Little Caesar or merely more cautious about where he goes to war,
more scrupulous in what he tells the public? Answering that question
would be a good starting point for them. Obviously, it would be awkward
for any of them to cite the rupturing of international law as a reason for
changing their minds. That objection was widely voiced by the anti-war
movement, but these men blew past it when they voted a year ago to give
Bush open-ended authority for war. Nor can they easily plead that Bush
lied to them -- though he did -- since it sounds quite lame coming from
politicians offering themselves for high office.
They can, however, acknowledge that they have learned from these events
and were compelled to reexamine the premises for war that they had first
accepted as decisive. Properly executed, this approach can convey a sense
of strength, even gutsiness. The candidate has his eyes open to the new
realities. He is self-confident enough to admit error and think anew.
This would also speak to the great weakness shared by these pro-war
figures -- the suspicion that they don't have the nerve to stand up to
Bush, to lead public opinion rather than follow along meekly.
Yes, the objective is to get GWB out of the White House. But do we
really want to select a new president who still hasn't absorbed the
visible meaning of the debacle in Iraq? Someone who clings to a
wrongheaded policy in the name of stupid consistency? Somehow I don't
think that's what voters are going to be looking for a year from now. So
here are a few paragraphs that might provide building blocks for the
crossover speech. Candidate X explains his thinking with words like
"Like others in Congress, I voted to authorize this war in the sincere
conviction that it would make things safer for the American people.
Despite the many issues, that ought to be everyone's first objective. Now
I am compelled to recognize that Americans are not safer, not better
protected against terrorism as a result of the war. In fact, with
considerable regret and anguish, I think it is possible that, if anything,
the war in Iraq has put our people in greater danger. That was not the
president's intention nor mine, but we now need to face it honestly.
"This reversal of our original purpose seems evident in the facts
everyone knows. When the president landed on the aircraft carrier and
declared victory, he asserted that because Saddam Hussein has been toppled
from power, ^ÑNo terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction
from the Iraqi regime." Unfortunately, the president has no factual basis
for making that claim. As everyone knows, the coalition failed to locate
the dangerous weapon stockpiles Saddam supposedly possessed or the
reconstituted nuclear-arms manufacturing the administration alleged. It
also failed to find Saddam, just as it previously failed to capture Osama
If there were such weapons before the war, as the president told us, we
must assume the weapons still exist -- unless our troops find credible
evidence that Saddam somehow destroyed them in a matter of weeks. If the
dangerous toxins or nuclear arms still exist, they may still be delivered
clandestinely to those who wish to harm Americans. Possibly, this has
"The other possibility -- that those weapons never existed -- raises a
far more troubling question for the nation and for those of us who
accepted the president's claims. Finger-pointing is not going to be
especially fruitful, but we are required to face the implications for
future policy. Politicized intelligence and manipulated facts subvert all
of the premises needed to justify 'preemptive war' as American strategy.
If our supporting facts were non-existent or manufactured by our own
government, then we will look no better to others than history's tyrants
who typically concocted 'evidence' to justify their invasions of other
"Our people will not tolerate going to war on hollow propaganda. Because
we are better than that, because it would corrupt our most sacred
principles. One way or another, democracy requires consent from the
governed to go to war. And that consent, as a practical matter, cannot be
achieved by trusting in undisclosed documents or from classified secrets
leaked to a few selected reporters. Bush's failure ought to remind us --
including those of us who trusted his word -- that this country usually
suffers grievous consequences when its leaders ignore the principles of
open accountability. If Americans cannot be given a forthright
examination of the justifying evidence, then 'preemptive war' must be
discarded as a failed concept. The way Bush has employed the concept is
"But the Bush policy has failed on a deeper level than 'intelligence
failures.' His first-strike attack on Iraq inadvertently has encouraged
the proliferation of the most dangerous weapons -- especially nuclear arms
-- because it demonstrated to the world that possessing a few nuclear
bombs is an insurance policy against military intrusions by the United
States or any other power. Thus, we bombed Iraq on the grounds it might
someday acquire a nuclear weapon. We treat North Korea delicately because
it already has some. We already see signs that other nations described as
potential U.S. targets may be moving toward acquiring a "nuclear shield"
against our overwhelming power.
The danger of proliferation is real enough. But, first, we need to stop
making it worse with arrogant threats. Then we need to think hard about
more effective solutions. "The United States is the global leader,
whether we like it or not, and we do not intend to resign that role. But
does this mean we have play the harried sheriff, running around the world
from one bonfire to the next? Is it really in our national self-interest
to be seen as the swaggering bully, awesomely armed and randomly choosing
countries to confront and perhaps conquer? I don't think so. A new
strategic vision will recognize and pursue three operating principles.
"First, the worldwide threat of terrorism is real and, by its nature,
cannot be solved without cooperative national-security actions coordinated
among many nations large and small. War in the traditional sense -- the
way we fought it in Iraq -- should be absolutely the last option, mainly
because in practice it doesn't seem to work. Conquering a suspect nation
turns out to be a little like burning down the chicken coop in order to
catch the fox. The fox gets away, while lots of chickens learn to
distrust and despise their liberator.
"Second, difficult as it may sound, we cannot generate the kind of
longterm international commitments needed for cooperative national
security without examining our own behavior in the world. Why do so many
people both admire and loathe the United States? Some of the reasons lie
beyond our reach, but we can tackle some of them, starting with our image
as an over-muscled hypocrite. In seeking to curb nuclear proliferation,
for instance, we can make useful expressions of our sincerity. We must
decide not to design and build any more exotic new versions of nuclear
bombs. We should rescind a longstanding Cold War policy that the U.S.
reserves the right to launch its nuclear weapons in a first strike against
other nations. Neither of these concessions would weaken us in the least.
The world remembers the U.S. is the only nation ever to use nuclear
destruction against another country.
Third, we can lead the world in reforming and reinvigorating
international institutions like the United Nations, so these can become
trustworthy forums for resolving disputes and, if necessary, the place to
organize armed authority to resist tyrants and other dangerous threats.
This is not a new view of mine. I have long argued that UN and others
like the IMF and World Bank are not functioning reliably now, but they
could if we are willing to pursue substantive reforms. Despite the
right-wing propaganda from the Republican party, most Americans believe in
seeking international solutions, not unilateral actions, and they believe
the UN should play a central role.
"I have some ideas about how to achieve these goals. But, frankly, this
is not a decision that will made in Washington alone. As George Bush
amply demonstrated to our sorrow,.the world is simply too complex and
interconnected now for a single superpower to play at empire --people
don't want it and, in this age, it doesn't succeed. We have to engage
worldwide discussions, more or less continuously with both rich and poor
nations, toward creating a new system of international relationships that
most everyone can trust because the system is genuinely open and fair to
them. This kind of diplomacy will be hard work and very often
frustrating. It will test our maturity as a nation. But it represents
our true national interest. I promise to start the job. I do not promise
that it can be completed on my watch."
Okay, that's a rough draft for starters. Now a word about the politics.
Washington insiders, including in the media, are assuming that Governor
Howard Dean will stumble or fade, that Senator Bob Graham and Rep. Dennis
Kucinich won't gain momentum. Eventually, insiders expect Democrats with
intense anti-war convictions to fall in line and support one of the others
in the field in order to defeat Bush. I'm not so sure. Just as pro-war
Washington misjudged the popular tide of opposition a year ago, the
insiders seem not to grasp the centrality of this issue for our times. If
a pro-war Democrat becomes president, he will be subjected to the same
political pressures for war -- terrrorism, Israel, oil and the rest --
that powered Bush's march into Iraq. Will the new president resist or
cooperate? For many millions, partisan labels are not a sufficient
answer to that question.
Perhaps as Bush's poll ratings sag further, the others will find their
voice. But it seems just as possible that, if Governor Dean's campaign
maintains its insurgent energies, the others will follow form and decide
to gang up on him, try to defame and destabilize the man and his campaign.
That would not be very reassuring to those voters who already don't trust
them. In any case, the opportunity to crossover won't wait forever. The
longer the cautious ones wait to see which way the wind is blowing, the
less convincing a belated conversion will seem.
Maybe we spectators can help prod the action by producing a plausible
"crossover speech" for candidates to study. Send me a paragraph or two --
more if you are really into it -- and I will try to cobble together a
respectable text (let me know if you don't wish to be credited). We do
not need over-the-top purple prose. We want a speech draft so cogent and
convincing that one of these guys may decide to crib from it.