Senate icon is the last, best hope for bipartisan support for US victory in Iraq
By JONATHAN S. TOBIN
If there is anyone in this country who has a right to a grudge against George W. Bush, it is Joe Lieberman, Connecticut's junior Democrat in the United States Senate.
After all, Lieberman was sure he was going to be inaugurated as America's first Jewish vice president in January 2001. He certainly came close enough to victory but, along with Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, he found himself having to swallow an electoral college defeat following the bitter dispute in Florida which decided the election.
As such Lieberman is an icon not just of American Jewish achievement but as a "martyr" of what many bitter Democratic partisans still claim was a "stolen election."
Buoyed by the rapturous reception that he had received in 2000, Lieberman tried for the top prize himself in 2004. He soon learned that despite his tacking to the left on many issues, his centrist politics were simply out of touch with Democratic primary voters. Soon after flopping in New Hampshire, his candidacy was over.
BUT LIEBERMAN is back in the news this month in a way that seems more in tune with the independent-minded senator who became the first prominent Democrat to publicly scold president Bill Clinton for lying and immorality. Rather than following his fellow Democrats into opposition to the war in Iraq, Lieberman has become one of the most vigorous advocates for a policy of pursuing American military action until victory.
In speeches and a widely read opinion column that was published in The Wall Street Journal on November 29, Lieberman has debunked much of the rhetoric being spouted by his fellow Democrats and laid out the case for perseverance in Iraq.
Far from being "immoral" as many have claimed the war to be, Lieberman believes the American purpose in Iraq is highly moral: the overthrow of a bloody and dangerous tyrant and the attempt to replace his regime with a functioning democratic state.
And far from the hopeless quagmire described by Bush's critics, Lieberman sees the battle there as "a war between 27 million and 10,000; 27 million Iraqis who want to live lives of freedom, opportunity and prosperity, and roughly 10,000 terrorists who are either Saddam revanchists, Iraqi Islamic extremists or al-Qaida foreign fighters."
Even more to the point, he has taken his party members to task for placing their hatred for Bush above the national interest.
He knows that prior to the war, Democrats and Republicans alike believed that Saddam Hussein was a threat and that his overthrow was necessary (a point that was made by Lieberman's push in 1998 for the Iraq Liberation Act, which called for US action to overthrow Saddam). The talk of "lies that led to war" rings hollow with a man who believed the United States ought to work to create a situation where Iraqis would live in a post-Saddam democratic state long before the abbreviation "WMD" entered our consciousness.
Even more, Lieberman understands that the United States is engaged in a world war against Islamists who intend the destruction of the West. "If the terrorists win [in Iraq], they will be emboldened to strike us directly again and to further undermine the growing stability and progress in the Middle East," Lieberman has warned the country.
As such, he believes that the duty of the loyal opposition is to unite behind the president on issues of national survival. "In matters of war, we undermine our president's credibility at our nation's peril," Lieberman said in a recent speech.
All this has created anger among Democrats who saw the American public's predictable impatience with a long-term overseas military commitment as an issue to ride to victory.
EARLIER THIS month, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean proclaimed the American cause in Iraq to be "unwinnable." Dean's brother James was reported by The New York Times to be leading a group in Lieberman's home state that was working to foster criticism of the senator. Other Democrats, including the leaders of the extremist Moveon.org group that helped generate so much support for Howard Dean's presidential bid, are vowing to support a challenger to Lieberman's bid for reelection to the Senate next year.
They may find a candidate in Lowell Weicker, the venerable liberal Republican, who was ousted by Lieberman from the Senate in 1988. Weicker is ardently opposed to the war and Bush. He has vowed to ensure Lieberman "doesn't get a free pass" over his support of the war and may run as an independent, a stance that earned him a term as Connecticut's governor subsequent to his time in the senate.
At the same time, rumors have been floated that Lieberman will be asked by the president to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. Lieberman has dismissed this idea as a "fantasy," but there's no denying he's an attractive possibility and that he would do well in that role.
It's hard to imagine Lieberman giving up his place in the senate. It's also difficult to see a man who is a reliable Democrat on domestic issues handing the GOP a senate seat since, if he resigned, Connecticut's governor would appoint a Republican who would serve until next November.
But whatever the intentions of the president or the senator, such a move would be a mistake. The best thing Lieberman can do for the country is to stay right where he is and spend the coming year fighting both for his seat and for the soul of his party.
As Lieberman rightly says, setting a timetable for an American pullout (a position now embraced by the Union of Reform Judaism) only gives the terrorists courage to persevere. The consequences of defeat in Iraq, an issue that anti-war forces rarely address, would be catastrophic for the Iraqi people, for American interests, the stability of the region, and, yes, for Israel, whose own Islamist foes would be greatly encouraged by an American retreat from Iraq.
Given the stakes involved in maintaining bipartisan support for the war effort, the nation needs Joe Lieberman in the Senate, not the Pentagon. Having him carry on his advocacy for patience on Iraq from within the Democratic caucus is vital not just for winning that debate, but for the health of our political system. Our enemies need to see that as divided as we may be, there are still powerful voices within the Democratic party that believe not only in the justice of our cause but in its eventual triumph.
Continuing this fight as a Democrat will not be easy for Lieberman. If he persists, he may find himself the subject of more radical calumny than anyone other than Bush or Cheney. But by providing a genuine example of bipartisan support for the war effort, he may do his country more good than anything he has ever done.
As a senator and national candidate, Joe Lieberman has already achieved far more than he could have hoped, though perhaps less than he dreamed. But his efforts to keep our nation united and focused on the war against Islamist terrorists may well prove to be his finest hour.
The writer is executive editor of The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.