Double Standard On Dissent
J. Dionne Jr., The Washington Post, March 21, 2003
Wartime is dangerous to liberty and free expression.
When troops head into battle, the party in power is
always tempted to condemn opposition and dissent as forms of treason. Suddenly
the president is no longer referred to simply as "the president." He
becomes "the commander in chief," a phrase that implies a lot more
But the more a president's supporters use the term
"commander in chief" to enhance his authority, the more important it
is to remember his role as the political leader of a free republic who is not
endowed with infallibility, unlimited power or immunity from criticism. That,
after all, is the essential difference between our country and Iraq. Our foe in
this war is a brutal despot who responds to opponents not with nasty sound bites
or 30-second attack ads but with torture and murder. To proclaim the right to
dissent is to declare why the United States is a country worth fighting for.
The president's party took an early run this week at
shutting down criticism with an all-hands-on-deck attack on Senate Democratic
leader Tom Daschle, a Vietnam-era veteran who had the nerve to criticize the
diplomatic failures leading up to this war.
"I'm saddened, saddened that this president failed
so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war," Daschle said on
Monday, "saddened that we have to give up one life because this president
couldn't create the kind of diplomatic effort that was so critical for our
The way the Republicans reacted, you'd have thought
Daschle had endorsed Saddam Hussein for reelection. "Those comments may not
undermine the president as he leads us into war," said House Speaker Dennis
Hastert. "And they may not give comfort to our adversaries, but they come
But a different standard seemed to apply after
President Clinton launched his 1999 air campaign in Kosovo to protect ethnic
Albanians from another dictator.
"I don't think we should be bombing in the
Balkans," said Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican. "I don't think NATO
should be destroyed because we changed its mission to a humanitarian one."
His colleague Rep. Randy Cunningham (R-Calif.) accused Clinton of pursuing
"the most inept foreign policy in the history of the United States."
For what it's worth, at the time, I criticized both
parties for overly personalizing the Kosovo debate around Clinton. But the fact
is that DeLay, Cunningham and the other critics were, like Daschle, simply
exercising their right -- as Americans and as members of Congress -- to differ
with the commander in chief.
Defenders of Daschle have focused on the Kosovo debate,
but almost all of Clinton's military decisions came under withering Republican
criticism. That's especially true of those he took in the middle of his sex
scandal. Note, for example, this Republican reaction to Clinton's missile
strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
"I just hope and pray that the decision that was
made was made on the basis of sound judgment and made for the right reasons, and
not made because it was necessary to save the president's job," said Dan
Coats, then a senator from Indiana and now President Bush's ambassador to
Germany. "Why now? Bin Laden has been known to be a terrorist for a long
time. Why did this happen?"
In truth, many Americans -- including many in the peace
movement arrayed against Bush's Iraq policy -- questioned Clinton's airstrikes.
Surely Daschle's critics do not propose a double standard holding that while it
was permissible to criticize Clinton's military decisions, it's wrong to
criticize Bush's. Do they?
Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who voted against
the Iraq war resolution, offered some useful words that both parties should tack
on their walls in the coming weeks.
"I am absolutely convinced that the most important
perspective is that people are obligated to respect opposing views," Leach
said in an interview. "This is one of the closest, most difficult decisions
we've confronted because this is an unprecedented circumstance. . . . What I
suggest to everybody is that Americans are divided and that every thinking
American is conflicted."
Leach warned against the simple dismissal of criticisms
of American policy, particularly from our friends abroad: "If we are a poor
respecter of other people's thoughts, our thoughts are not going to be well
received at another time."
Leach's conclusion: "Whether one was doubtful of
military action or whether one supports military action, everybody has an
interest in making sure military action works."
Leach's quiet and respectful patriotism is a better
guide to preserving both liberty and unity than bombast -- or the assumption
that critics are automatically enemies of the state.
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