A No-Win Situation Leads to Exactly That

When Warren Harding was smarting under the scandals of his administration, he is supposed to have told journalist William Allen White, “My God-damn friends, White, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!”

Harken to the Democrats, walking the floor and complaining of each other. The selection of Representative Nancy Pelosi to replace Representative Dick Gephardt as House minority leader shows what the Democratic Party thinks of its own situation. Electing not to fight the Republicans on the economy or foreign policy, the Democrats didn’t fight them in any clear way at all. Telling themselves that all politics would be local, they forsook politics altogether. The natural result followed: The party without coherent positions faltered, while the party with them-despite an economic slump and a President who was a runner-up in the popular vote two years ago-managed to capture the remaining elective branch of government. The best lacked all conviction, while the worst were full of passionate intensity.

Thus the Democrats. Their solution is to bring on Nancy Pelosi, the 12-term Congresswoman from San Francisco who has spent her career in sync with her district. Sometimes, by the way, that makes her right: She supports needle-exchange programs, which might help slow the spread of AIDS and other diseases, though I would prefer legalizing the sale of needles. But her most noteworthy recent position is the royal blue of blue-county America: She voted against authorizing President Bush to take unilateral action against Iraq.

But is it possible that the pre-election feebleness of the Democrats was not accidental? Were they maneuvered into their supine position? Domestically, the Bush administration had staked its appeal on a 10-year tax cut. Walter Mondale boldly criticized tax cuts at the San Francisco Democratic Convention in 1984, and while the Democratic Party was willing to put Fritz on the ballot in Minnesota this time around, they were not hardy enough to revive his policies.

In foreign policy, the Bush administration stood for a tough line on Iraq. Where was the political traction in a soft line? Opposition to going it alone on Iraq, if need be, comes from four sources-none of them, alone or together, enough to galvanize the electorate.

First is the doubt that attends any policy that will bring death, destruction and uncertainty. Such doubts affect many people; supporters of disarming Iraq feel them; what sane man wouldn’t? The decision to take action can only be justified by the greater dangers of inaction-in this case, a tyrant who could slip a big one to the murderers who would like to level 2,000 American buildings next time, not two.

The second group of delayers are the people who say we must not move without allies. By allies, they don’t mean Great Britain, who has been at our side, but Russia and France. Both countries gave us help in the war in Afghanistan, for which we should be grateful. But they have their own national interests, which include major oil deals with Iraq. Should our well-being depend on French and Russian profits? The ally-lovers think so.

Third come the fans of the U.N. You would think the Cold War impotence of the U.N. would have consumed all the moral capital it had back in the days when Alfred Hitchcock slyly used it as a bright backdrop for one of the opening scenes of North by Northwest . But transnational bodies, vast and soft as giant squids, are the coming thing; Europe is binding itself to the Brussels sprouts. Never defend yourself, the U.N. lovers say; wait for Mr. Kofi. The Security Council has come through with a 15-0 vote for new inspections of Iraq’s weapons programs; but does anyone imagine they would have done so without America’s willingness to take the country apart itself?

Last in sense and virtue is the antiwar left. What a gang they’ve become: conspiracy theorists, Jew-haters, multiculturalists so mad they defer to police states and theocrats. It’s a long way from “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

So a Democratic antiwar strategy would have involved using the energies of the last three groups to inflame the concerns of those in the first. Dick Gephardt, to his credit, asked himself if he wanted to stir up fear in the service of multilateralists and crackpots, and decided he didn’t. Most of his party, out of some combination of prudence and morality, agreed. This is why the Democrats didn’t battle the G.O.P. on foreign policy going into the elections. The only grounds for a fight would have been as unpopular as they are feckless. Good luck to Nancy Pelosi; she’ll need it.

The question ahead of us concerns tactics, but it is the most important question in the world today. The Bush administration’s goal of disarming Iraq is the right thing, for us and for its neighbors. Will the new round of U.N. inspections do the job? The U.N. missed major Iraqi wrongdoing the first time around, and Saddam’s scientists have had years of work without the distraction of lying. Are we looking at a months-long charade that will put us back where we are now: unhappy with a deadly situation, and willing to act with only the Brits and few local allies? Will our willingness to go through international channels now buy us any good will later, or will the delay only hobble us further?

Last fall, in one his prewar speeches, President Bush said, seemingly impromptu, that he would give the Taliban regime in Afghanistan one last chance to give up Osama bin Laden. Why talk of chances when the only option was death? But the Taliban did not surrender him, and soon they were surrendering in droves. George W. Bush’s path through life is lined with the wrecks of those who underestimated him. We must hope that his steady pace is the right one for this situation, too; more than the fate of a baseball team or a political party depends on it.