The midterm election was decisive—the election of 1874, that is. The Republicans went from a 111-seat lead over the Democrats in the House of Representatives to a 79-seat deficit. The Democrats also picked up numerous governorships and state legislatures. President Ulysses Grant still had two years to go in his second term, and the Senate remained in Republican hands. But the midterm election of 1874 guaranteed the end of Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was the post–Civil War effort to extend the rights of citizenship and suffrage to Southern blacks. The 14th and 15th Amendments had written these rights into the Constitution, but they were continually challenged by the resistance of Southern whites. In September 1874, for example, 3,500 members of the White League of Louisiana battled local police and black militiamen in New Orleans, capturing city hall, the statehouse and the arsenal, until federal troops put them down. Many Northerners sympathized: “the insurgents,” wrote The Nation, “had … plainly the right on their side.” After the midterm elections, however, the Grant administration lost all heart for such exertions. “The ‘let alone policy’ seems now to be the true course,” wrote Rutherford B. Hayes, a Republican politician in 1875. Two years later, Hayes would succeed Grant as President.
There are many issues at play in next week’s midterm elections: pages, macaca, winking blondes, sons’ penises. But the Iraq war throbs under them all like a subway. It was the war that stripped Senator Joe Lieberman of his party’s nomination, and that gave James Webb his new party’s nomination. Voters and commentators alike are right to look it in the face.
Is it better that we invaded Iraq, killed Saddam’s sons, and put him on trial for his many crimes and murders? It is. Saddam Hussein was an aggressive brute, waging war on his people and his neighbors. He was the host and paymaster of terrorists; as time passed, he decked his regime in Islamist clothing (he put a verse of the Koran on the Iraqi flag). Saddam had used one weapon of mass destruction—poison gas—and his scientists pursued others; he defied U.N. resolutions to come clean. He was a menace to Iraqis, to the region and to us. It is good that we pulled down his statue and that children beat the fallen head of it with their shoes; it will be better when he is in an early grave.
Should we have stayed in Iraq to stabilize it after toppling Saddam? The Union had a duty to concern itself with the fate of Southern blacks after the Civil War because they lived in the United States; Iraqis don’t. Yet it is not in our interest to leave a Muslim nation in chaos and despair. Muslims live everywhere; Muslims, we learned one late-summer day, can fly. It is beyond the power of outsiders to repair the political systems of six time zones or to reform a religion of a billion plus. But if we could help send a message of hope in the country we had invaded, it was worth trying.
Have we had any success? Millions of Iraqis have bravely voted in three elections, defying the threats of terrorists and gangsters to gun them down at the polls. The Iraqi politicians they elected have hammered together a government. They aren’t always effective, but they too have been brave: Terrorists murdered the sister of one Iraqi vice president and the brother of another (our politicians call themselves brave when they attack earmarks). A majority of Iraqis wants responsible self-rule. But armed minorities, both Sunni and Shiite, want to rule all by themselves.
What more can we do? We have to be as flexible as the terrorists militarily. Gen. George Casey is considering asking for more troops in Baghdad, the epicenter of violence. Don’t be shy, general. We should assign more troops as advisors to Iraqi units. There are 4,000 serving now; there would be a greater multiplier from eight. It is possible to learn such lessons; the British did, fighting 20th-century insurgencies in Malaya and Oman.
The American and Iraqi governments will have to settle with Moqtada al-Sadr, the murderous Shiite cleric. President Bush spoke of establishing benchmarks in his press conference last week, which wrung a protest from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Naturally, Mr. Maliki was obliged to say that, as the leader of a sovereign state, he is not beholden to other leaders’ benchmarks. Nevertheless, trying to battle terrorists when one terrorist (Mr. Sadr) is a member of Mr. Maliki’s coalition in Parliament is like … well, like giving the House of Representatives to a Democratic Party that included the White League of Louisiana.
We must find some way to deter Syria and Iran from stirring the pot. Iran is a patron of Mr. Sadr, while Syria has been the transmission belt for Sunni thugs. Deterring Iran will become much more difficult once it develops an atom bomb, something that will happen soon since we seem to have no obvious plans to stop it. Perhaps Syria is more squeezable.
Will any of these tasks become easier with a Democratic Congress? If ever there was a man by temperament impervious to political hardship, that man is George W. Bush. He seems to be made of solid brass. Mr. Bush will press on if the Republicans fall to a 179-seat deficit in the House. Foreigners don’t necessarily know that, however. The terrorists who brought down the Spanish government with the Madrid train bombings might feel that they had made an encouraging test run for 2008.
We should not let the levers in our voting booths be pulled by terrorists. If we have better men and women to put in place, we should put them there, and let the world draw whatever mistaken conclusions it likes. Are the Democrats better? Is bouncing Christopher Shays out of Congress, or keeping a sleaze like Robert Menendez in it, going to freshen our minds and renew our spirits? I didn’t think so either. The war is right, Mr. Bush is determined to fight it, and Congressional Republicans are his best colleagues.