Walking the Planks


BOSTON—Wherever you go in this city, people talk about war—either the war on Iraq or the war on terror. This despite Kerry’s original support for the invasion of Iraq and his current hedged backing for a continued U.S. presence there. The best the Dems can do in their platform is to gesture at troop reduction in a vague exit policy that would take place under the umbrella of the U.N. and NATO.

As a practical matter, none of this makes much difference, because the real platform is Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s too bad the Dem leaders can’t just hand out DVDs of the film instead of their platitudinous platform. Dumping Bush is what matters to the delegates.

Most of the party’s “ideas” come from the Clintonistas of the Democratic Leadership Council. Instead of plowing through the platform, you will find it a lot easier to go straight to the DLC website and read the 10-point program crafted by Al From and Bruce Reed. You may not agree with it, but it’s doubtless where Kerry will end up, since the Clinton contingent—not the Kennedy crew—is running this show.

The DLC (and the Dem platform) argue that the middle class can be best served by tax cuts. They want to expand Clinton’s AmeriCorps with a new civilian defense service that could help fight the war on terror. The DLC and the platform make demands for “affordable” health care, which means the same thing in both parties—implementation of a competitive plan for federal workers in which they can shop around from a series of often inadequate and expensive plans. (In all fairness, this idea came not from the DLC, but from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which long ago took up the federal scheme as an alternative to Ted Kennedy’s call for universal health care.)

The Patriot Act is a signature plank of the Bush program, but the Dems have little to say about it: Revoke its overly intrusive aspects (such as invading libraries), tighten provisions on money laundering “while still allowing government to take all needed steps to fight terror”), and keep the rest. This is understandable, because the basic Patriot Act legislation was written during the Clinton-Gore years as an unthinking political response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

The Dems want to slow terrorism by moving “decisively to cut off the flow of terrorist funds.” But investigations suggest that terrorists and the drug trade may be intertwined. And we have had little success in our war against drugs.

The Democrats are firmly on record in support of free trade, but they add, “We will stand up for American workers and consumers by building on President Clinton’s progress in including enforceable, internationally recognized labor and environmental standards in trade agreements.” Unfortunately, we continue to outsource jobs abroad, often in the worst imaginable sweatshop settings. This sounds like more vacuous talk.

Where the Dems are truly different from the Republicans is on social issues—gay rights, abortion rights, stem-cell research. Here the Dems offer a real difference to Bush’s medieval Christianity.

As always, the Democrats staunchly support Israel. As for Islam, there is little discussion. Nor is there any serous critique of bin Laden’s thinking. Bush’s analysis is based on a neoconservative worldview that insists there is a choice between good and evil, with the center of our foreign policy focused on the Middle East, where our choices are black-and-white, and the conclusion is, too: Embrace good and fight evil. We execute foreign-policy objectives not through multilateral agreements, treaties, or the U.N., but with direct, unilateral military force. It is a simple coherent foreign policy that in the view of many people around the globe allows the American empire to run the world.

As for the Democratic Party, its platform contains the echo of the same black-and-white neoconservative thinking: “At the core of this conflict is a fundamental struggle of ideas: democracy and tolerance against those who would use any means and attack any target to impose their narrow views. The war on terror is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash of civilization against chaos.”

By contrast, in USA Today last week, “Anonymous,” the former longtime CIA official who tracked bin Laden, argues that we don’t have a clue about his thinking or his objectives. “We’ve missed the nature of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden,” he writes. “Presidents Clinton and Bush were both insistent that Osama bin Laden was attacking us because of who we are and what we do. That’s about as far from the truth as you can possibly get. My bottom line is that we’re never going to win this war if we don’t realize what motivates our opponent and try to address it across a spectrum of policies instead of just the military policy, which is basically our only option at the moment . . . ”

Anonymous adds, “Since 1996, bin Laden has been explicit in what he is up to. He is focused on a very limited number of U.S. policies and the way they are perceived in the Middle East”—not any black-and-white clash of good and evil, civilization or chaos.

“Part of his genius,” says Anonymous, “is his focus on the United States. One of the last remnants of European colonialism in the Arab world was a tradition of resistance against national governments. These tyrannies [today’s governments] in the Arab world are too strong. There is no way [bin Laden] can ever beat them one at a time. It is too costly in terms of money, lives, and families. He argues that the U.S. is weaker because it’s a democracy, because it doesn’t like to lose people, because it’s so hypersensitive to any kind of opinion around the world that is critical, that if they can drive the Americans out of the region, the rest of it falls like fruit from a tree. The tyrannies in all of the countries go.”

Neither Bush nor the other conservatives openly admit to the historical importance of the Western colonial presence in the Middle East. They deny that the war in Iraq grows out of a century-long colonial exploitation of the region’s oil. From the beginning of the 20th century on, the colonial powers set the rules of who was to have what oil and how it was to be used in what markets through an international oil cartel. We manipulated governments—overthrowing the nationalist Mossadegh in the ’50s in Iran and placing the shah in power, then supporting Saddam as a counterweight to Iran during the long war (1980-88) between those countries. Earlier, we intervened directly to organize the economy of the oil states with the creation of the joint Saudi-American oil company Aramco. Later, we pretty much defanged OPEC. The first Gulf war was seen by many as a reaffirmation of American colonialism, wrapped in slogans of democratic self-determination and humanitarian endeavor. Bin Laden, who began his career as an instrument of Western colonial powers against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, sought to rally his backers, under a fundamentalist religious banner, to oust the Americans from the Persian Gulf.

Neither political party in the U.S. openly accepts this history; both of them instead color what amounts to a continuation of colonial presence with the same slogans of democracy and humanitarianism. The Democrats argue that we must diversify our sources of oil, away from the Middle East. But in fact, ever since the rise of OPEC, we have been steadily engaged in diversifying—we’re already getting oil from non-OPEC countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as Mexico and Canada, which increasingly operate within the dictates of NAFTA. These sources have steadily reduced our dependence on the Gulf. Europe does remain dependent on Gulf oil. And it will draw heavily on the adjacent oil finds in the Caspian, as will China, which will soon be one of the largest energy importers—if not the largest—in the world.

Nowhere in the Democratic platform is there any mention of this recent history, nor is there one reference to our new colonial presence in West Africa, where the U.S. discusses a military presence to protect the growing oil industry in the Gulf of Guinea. Instead, the Democrats repeat slogans that date from Jimmy Carter’s presidency about the need to harness renewable resources and alternative fuels. Neither party has shown in the past 30 years the least bit of interest in developing such resources.

Only on social issues does the Democratic program differ from that of the Republicans. Otherwise, the differences are vague, and in the case of the Iraq war, depressingly similar. As for Islam, it doesn’t exist.

Additional reporting: Alexander Provan