You don’t have to be an amnesiac to be a Democrat, buddy, but it helps

Por Gerard Baker (THE TIMES, 18/11/05):

PERHAPS THE biggest weapon in the arsenal of America’s critics is carefully selective amnesia. Conveniently forgetting important historical facts enables tactical amnesiacs to make claims about US policy that seem to support their contention that the country’s government is uniquely evil.

The latest evidence that George Bush is a war criminal has apparently come this week with the acknowledgment that the US military used white phosphorus (WP) on enemy positions in Fallujah. This is deemed an outrage, something decent countries never do, yet more proof that the Bush-Cheney cabal is sedulously destroying the very foundations of American civilisation.

The discovery that American soldiers refer to WP cavalierly as “shake and bake” seems to have come as an additional shock to the easily agitated sensibilities of the critics. Can you believe men can be so callous as to refer to something so horrible in such a jocular fashion? They must be Nazis.

In fact, WP is not a chemical weapon, not even banned by any treaty to which the US is signatory. It has been used by the armed forces in all countries in wars for decades. Indeed, if you look up the roll of US Congressional Medal of Honour winners, you will discover that quite a few received this highest military decoration precisely because they used “shake and bake” to such successful effect.

The weapon’s purpose is to create a smokescreen that flushes the enemy out of foxholes, so that the attacker can get a better chance of shooting them or blowing them up with high explosives. I wait with resigned anticipation for the reports of shocking new evidence that the US has used “bullets” and “bombs” in its attacks on the enemy.

There is useful amnesia too on the issue of torture. The White House is in the dock over this one because it wants Congress to refrain from imposing a complete ban on anything that might resemble mistreatment of prisoners. No one wants to make torture an everyday tool of military tactics. But does anyone honestly think that, in the course of the many honorable wars America and its allies have fought, some pretty brutal techniques have not been used now and again to extract information?

It has become fashionable for opponents to add pragmatism to principle and say that torture never yields any useful information, since a suffering prisoner will say anything to stop the pain. Really? Never? Not a single one? You mean every hapless soul who ever fell into Torquemada’s hands never gave up any information that led to the capture of one heretic?

Again, I repeat, to head off the correspondence I will get from angry readers saying I’m advocating pulling the fingernails out of innocent Muslims: no one is suggesting torture should ever be used except in the most extreme cases of imminent peril. But if a US interrogator in such extremes pursued an opportunity to save thousands of lives and then wound up in jail, that would strike me as an injustice.

These outbreaks of amnesia are, I suppose, forgivable, since they require a bit of genuine historical memory. Much less tolerable is the memory loss that seems to have gripped Democrats in the past few weeks. This is the “I’ve completely forgotten I once believed Saddam Hussein was a monstrous threat to our security” amnesia.

As the unpopular war in Iraq rumbles on, opportunistic Democrats are eagerly embracing the argument that opponents of the war used all along: Bush and Blair lied about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. This was objectionable enough when used by the charter members of the anti-war crowd. Remember that the evidence of Saddam’s accumulation of WMD in the past, his dissembling to international inspectors, the independent intelligence from other countries’ agencies that corroborated US and British claims is well documented, going way back to the times when peace-and love-promoting multilateralist Democrats were in the White House.

But the “Bush lied to us” whine is much worse when it comes from the mouths of those who insisted only three years ago, in voting for the war, that they were taking a heroic stand in defence of national security. Half the Democratic members of the Senate — oddly enough, including all those with serious presidential aspirations — John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden — voted for the war in 2002. The awful truth about many of these people is that their cynicism in distancing themselves from their support for the war is only matched by their cynicism in originally supporting it.

Let me be clear: some Democrats — Joe Lieberman springs to mind — supported the war for the right reasons, and continue to do so. Others — Ted Kennedy, Russell Feingold — opposed it all along. But most of those now recanting made a straight political calculation in voting to authorise force in the first place.

These were the ambitious Democrats who thought they had learnt the lessons of 1991. Then you may recall, the vast majority of the party’s senators voted against the first Iraq war. The arguments then were not about right but might, or America’s perceived lack of it. There was talk of hundreds of thousands of body bags. Most of the Democrats, fearing the country was still in the grip of Vietnam syndrome, wanted nothing to do with it. They wanted to be able to say afterwards “ We told you so”, and to reap the political rewards.

In the eventfewer than 200 Americans died, and all those Democrats who had voted against the war were suddenly political carrion. So, confronted with a similar choice in October 2002, they did not want to be on the losing side again. If it was another cakewalk, and they had voted against it, the damage to their credibility as presidential candidates would be irreparable. Best to vote for it to burnish their national security credentials.

But it wasn’t a cakewalk. And now they’re trapped. So they resort to the defence of the coward throughout history: “He made me do it.” Most Americans have better memories.