Since September 11, 2001¯or at least since the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and probably since the invasion of Afghanistan¯there has been a fundamental imbalance in the way the left and the right have perceived the use of the American military in the war against the Jihadists.
Of course, a good-sized section of the middle¯the non-ideological voters in the United States¯wanted something done after the attacks of September 11, and they approved the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (though, as the election yesterday proved, they have now soured on Iraq). But the more serious and committed camps in American politics reacted differently.
Conservatives, for instance, have seen the war in Iraq primarily as a foreign-policy issue¯a partisan issue, certainly, since everything in politics is partisan, but not as much as other issues, since foreign policy has traditionally been among the less divisive of American political concerns. That was especially true in such times as World War II, but it was true as well even during less active fights: The Republicans campaigned brutally against Truman’s record in the Cold War, and then, when Eisenhower came to power, followed much the same course as Truman.
Perhaps the best way to look at it is this: The way the right in America thinks about the war in Iraq is not comparable to the way the right thinks about abortion. Let’s leave aside the question of whether opposition to abortion is properly a conservative issue. The process by which the Republicans became the pro-life party and the Democrats became the pro-abortion party is one of the most bizarre in our history. Roe v. Wade distorts everything it touches, including American politics. Still, opposition to abortion is now a fixed part of the conservative world, and, for deep-red-state Republicans, to cease to be pro-life would require a fundamental rethinking of everything it currently means to be a conservative. To cease to support the war in Iraq requires only a change of mind about a particular attempt to carry out one initiative of foreign policy.
The left, however, has seen Iraq almost entirely as a culture-wars issue. From the moment the invasion looked imminent, the left responded with petitions, denunciations, marches, placards, screeds¯the whole leftist arsenal since the 1960s for fighting the culture wars. This was first brought home to me in early 2003, when protesting poets forced Laura Bush to cancel a poetry event she had scheduled at the White House. ( I wrote about it at the time in the Weekly Standard .) And in the nearly four years since, the situation has not changed.
Curious things have resulted from this imbalance between the ways the right and the left see the war. One is that conservatives could oppose invading Iraq without ceasing to be conservatives. Admittedly, not everyone thought so at the time: David Frum, for instance, thundered in National Review in the spring of 2003: "The paleoconservatives have chosen¯and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them." It’s awkward to remember, since David was quoted in the widely discussed article in this month’s Vanity Fair about his current opposition to Bush and the war in Iraq. But that’s rather the point. National Review ‘s Jonah Goldberg could announce last month in the Los Angeles Times that he, too, now thinks Iraq was a mistake , but that doesn’t make him a lefty or strip him of his conservative credentials. It just means that either he was wrong then or he’s wrong now about a particular feature of American foreign policy.
On the left, however, to support the war meant, and continues to mean, that one must cease to count oneself on the left. After September 11, the blogosphere was full of people¯ Roger Simon is a good example ¯who insisted they were old-fashioned liberals who merely wanted a strong foreign policy. And no one on the left believed them, precisely because no one on the left could believe them. A use of the American military is necessarily a vicious thing, and opposition to the war is a marker of liberal credentials. Just ask Joe Lieberman, elected last night as Connecticut’s senator without a party.
The middle in American politics, the non-ideological voters, were always changeable. If the war went well, they would support it; if the war went poorly, they would lose patience. But even that is insufficient to explain yesterday’s election results. The fact is that conservatives, too, were changeable on the war, and they varied as the result seemed to prove or disprove the foreign-policy theory under which we went to war.
Only the left wouldn’t change. The war, I believe, has gone better than news reports suggest, but even if the war were working out easily, the people on the far left would oppose it in exactly the same numbers they now do. It isn’t that they reject American foreign policy, although that’s the effect. They reject the notion that this is a foreign-policy question. It’s a culture war, and they are looking to win here the battles in the culture wars they believe they have lost elsewhere.
Perhaps they will, but the imbalance in views of the war means that yesterday’s Democratic victory is much less of a mandate than it appears. The general victory of conservative referendum measures across the country seems to say the opposite: Conservatives are tired of the war, not tired of conservatism. They’ve lost patience with Republican corruption and incompetence, not with the right in general. They’ll live to regret that, I think, particularly if Justice Stevens retires from the Supreme Court next year, as it is rumored he will. But, whatever the Democrats attempt over the next two years, the presidential election of 2008 was not settled yesterday.