Thursday, November 17, 2005

Echo of History: The Senate Resolution on Iraq

Where I'm about to step may be a minefield. But as a lifelong student of History and politics--I mean since I was four and including majoring in Social Studies, managing a congressional campaign, working for the Ohio House of Representatives, and once being a candidate for public office--I can't help but make an observation about the resolution passed the other day by the Republican-controlled Senate.

In that resolution, the upper chamber sought regular reports on progress with the war in Iraq from the White House and more significantly, asked for the outline of a plan for what has been called by some, the Iraqization of both the war and of Iraqi civil life.

The resolution had the support of a disparate group of Republican senators including George Allen, John Warner, Lindsay Graham, Bill Frist, and Chuck Hagel. (John McCain was opposed. I knew that and yet included him in the list of those supporting in the original version of this post.)

The Senate has been excoriated by some Republicans for what they perceive as disloyalty to the President, for "embarrassing" him while out of the country, for a lack of courage, and even, it's hinted, for a lack of patriotism.

Republican senators have defended the resolution as a matter of exercising congressional oversight, as a symptom of restiveness in the country over what the President's course in Iraq is going to be, and as an act of patriotism and support of our military personnel.

Democratic Senator Joe Biden has offered a few comments about the resolution and its meaning. But for the most part, Democrats have been relatively quiet about it, while continuing to pursue charges that "Bush lied" about the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

I have no intention of offering an opinion about the politics of all this.

But I do say something about the history of it. The action of the Republican Senate resonates with history.

Back around 1965 and 1966, during the Vietnam War, the Democratic Party enjoyed majorities in both the House and the Senate and occupied the White House.

The Texas-born President, Lyndon Johnson, a man who apparently saw no limits to what government might do or spend money on, had won a landslide victory in the 1964 elections.

Everyone agreed immediately following that election that he enjoyed extraordinary amounts of political capital that could be used to pursue his ambitious domestic agenda.

Everywhere Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party looked, it saw green lights.

But there was a problem: The War in Vietnam. As it dragged on with no end in sight, the nation became restive. Americans wondered about the exit strategy, even though a majority of the country always supported seeing the war to an end, whatever that formulation meant.

The Republican minority spoke about the conduct of the war, by and large advocating a strategy which they described as victory rather than containment. But their voice was largely marginalized and irrelevant to the discussion. The Democrats were in control and it was the Democrats who needed to resolve Vietnam. (Even when Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, by a thin margin, he hadn't given any specifics on how he would end the war, pointing simply to the historic precedent of Dwight Eisenhower's end of the Korean conflict within six months of his coming to office and of the need to turn sovereignty and the conduct of the war to the South Vietnamese. That policy, once Nixon was in office, came to be called Vietnamization.)

In the end, it was the Democrats and mostly, the Democratic Senate, that came to challenge Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy. People like Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, William Fullbright, Wayne Morse, Frank Church, and others broke with the President. So did Democratic activists from throughout the country.

Something like this seems to be happening now. Whether spooked by decreases in public approval for the President's conduct of the war, genuinely concerned about where our Iraq policy is going, or a combination of those motives, Republican Senators are doing today what Democratic Senators did then. Back then, Senate Democrats regretted their support of the resolution which authorized Lyndon Johnson to go to war. They saw it as a blank check with which the President had bought a lot more trouble than anything for which they'd bargained. It appears, whether genuinely or not, that many Republicans in the Senate are feeling the same.

Some will argue that the analogy between Vietnam in 1965 and Iraq in 2005 is inapt. They have a point. There were 65,000 Americans killed in the Vietnamese conflict, compared to 2000 in this one. But, of course, every single life is precious. The Vietnam experience has also decreased American patience for lengthy military operations.

I've studied enough History to reject the tired old statement that, "History repeats itself." History never does the exact same thing twice. But there are lessons to be derived from History.

The Republican Senate of 2005 appears to be embracing a role not dissimilar to than taken on by the Democratic Senate of 1965. Whether they're right in doing so is a judgment I leave to others. Some argued--and argue still--that Lyndon Johnson's opponents in the Senate prolonged the war and gave aid and comfort the enemy. Others say that they hastened its end and made the Administration accountable. Similar point-counterpoint arguments are going on today, perhaps.

But this isn't something new. There is at least one precedent.

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