Gulf war's domestic toll: Democrats, liberals, civil rights establishment

Adam Meyerson

April 09, 1991|By Adam Meyerson

THERE ARE three domestic losers from the conflict in the Persian Gulf: liberals and Democrats, the civil rights establishment and the reflexively anti-government wing of the conservative movement.

The gulf conflict showed that important ideological and partisan differences over defense and foreign policy did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. National security is still an important trump card for conservatives and Republicans, who will continue to be trusted by voters to make better military decisions than liberals and Democrats.

The patriotism of liberals must not be called into question here. Once the decision to go to war was taken, they wholeheartedly supported American troops in the gulf -- the first time they had unapologetically supported overseas military action since Korea and the early days of Vietnam.

But congressional Democrats, with a few brave exceptions, showed they cannot be entrusted with military leadership. They clung tenaciously to their embargo strategy -- even after it was discredited by Saddam Hussein's refusal to withdraw from Kuwait, despite nearly 40 days of punishing air bombardment. Thus, they completely misunderstood what it would require to oust Saddam's military machine. Statesmanship is often a matter of judgment calls, and voters will remember that in the first post-Cold War crisis, congressional Democrats judged wrong.

Another domestic loser from the gulf war is the civil rights establishment, which demeaned the patriotism and heroism of black soldiers by implying they had signed up for military service only because of an absence of other employment opportunities. The civil rights leaders envisioned only the body bags, and argued that it was unfair for a disproportionate number of blacks to be asked to risk their lives. What they failed to recognize were the disproportionate opportunities for glory and character development.

The veterans of Operation Desert Storm, in sharp contrast to those of Vietnam, are returning home as national heroes. The large number of blacks in the operation -- from Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Calvin Waller on down the ranks -- therefore represents a milestone in American history: Never before have so many blacks been so admired for their patriotism, professional competence, courage under fire and strict discipline.

But they owe no thanks to a civil rights leadership that saw black soldiers only as victims instead of glorious victors. This is the second time in a generation that the civil rights establishment has betrayed the interests of black Americans -- the first being its ostracism in the '60s and '70s of anyone who raised concerns about the breakup of the black family.

The challenge -- yes, challenge -- for conservatives is that the sheer competence of American troops in the gulf will revive faith in government. Liberals will argue that many of America's domestic problems could be solved if the financial resources of the Pentagon and the political will power demonstrated during the war were applied to homelessness, or education, or economic productivity or health care.

They will be mostly wrong, for three reasons: The highly structured command system of the military is economically inefficient outside of warfare as well as inappropriate for civilian life in a free society; domestic issues already absorb federal, state, and local budgets five times greater than spending on the Pentagon; and many of America's most serious problems, such as the destruction of the family, can only be cured by cultural regeneration rather than political means.

But liberals will strike a sympathetic chord as they try to apply the can-do spirit of Operation Desert Storm to domestic as well as foreign policy. Unless conservatives demonstrate a can-do political spirit of their own, one that engages government constructively in battling social ills, they will lose much of the advantage gained from liberal misjudgments over national security in the gulf.

Adam Meyerson is editor of Policy Review, the quarterly journal of the Heritage Foundation.

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