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Byrd's legacy: He showed courage on Iraq -- when other Dems punted

Putting aside the problematic aspects of Robert Byrd's legacy, many are properly focusing on the strong and compelling case he made against the Iraq War and against Bush's rough handling of the Constitution.

But what's important about this aspect of Byrd's legacy is not just what he said, but when he said it. His stance against the Iraq War came at a time when many other Democrats, cowed by Bush's swaggering popularity, were too meek and frightened to say the same thing -- even though they undoubtedly agreed with the late Senator.

Byrd's stand against the Iraq invasion is not just a testament to his own courage. It's also a testament to the cowardice of other members of his party at an absolutely critical moment -- an epic cave that may have altered the course of history and should never be forgotten.

"For the first time in history of the Republic, the nation is considering a preemptive strike against a sovereign state. And I will not be silent!" Byrd thundered in September 2002, when war fever was gripping the nation.

The following month, the Senate overwhelmingly approved Bush's Iraq War resolution. More Democrats joined Republicans in voting for it than voted against it, 29-21.

What's key to remember is that Byrd castigated his fellow Democrats for caving to Bush. "We are rushing into war without fully discussing why, without thoroughly considering the consequences, or without making any attempt to explore what steps we might take to avert conflict," he said on one occasion.

Many Democrats who voted for the war probably agreed with Byrd but were too cowed by the country's frenzied march to war to say so. And this may have altered the course of history.

Bush would likely have gone to war even if he hadn't secured the resolution, but if more Dems had stood against it, it's not out of the question that Bush might have been forced to find another way out.

And Dem capitulation on the war may have helped cost Dems the 2004 presidential election. It made it impossible to draw a clear contrast on the war and led Dems to nominate a war hero who had favored the invasion and thus had a badly muddled message. The other historical legacy of this cave is that it still haunts Dem efforts to claim they represent a genuine alternative on national security issues.

It's this larger political context that makes Byrd's full-throated opposition to the invasion the greatest moment of his career, as he himself has put it.

One other key point: Byrd's opposition to the Iraq War was made all the more forceful by the fact that he had staunchly supported the Vietnam War -- and could speak with the authority of someone who had an institutional memory of the consequences of that decision.

The next time a decision of this kind comes along, the Democrats who are today mourning Byrd's loss will be able to draw on the institional memory of their own previous failing at a key historical moment -- just as Byrd did in his finest moment.

UPDATE, 1:43 p.m.: E.J. Dionne made similar points this morning that are definitely worth reading.

By Greg Sargent  |  June 28, 2010; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy and national security , Senate Dems  
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Comments

You mean "mourning"? Let me know when you decide to not "put[] aside the problematic aspects of Robert Byrd's legacy" so I can see what opinionated journalism on that looks like ; )

Posted by: JakeD2 | June 28, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

"Many Democrats who voted for the war probably agreed with Byrd but were too cowed by the country's frenzied march to war to say so."

Probably? What's this based on? It is in hindsight only that folks changed their minds.

The "frenzied" march occurred a full year and a half after 9/11. It was hardly frenzied.

"For the first time in history of the Republic, the nation is considering a preemptive strike against a sovereign state."

There are still those of us who feel that Iraq violated the terms of the cease fire after the first gulf war and that in itself justified the second Iraq war.

Posted by: sbj3 | June 28, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

""""We are rushing into war without fully discussing why, without thoroughly considering the consequences, or without making any attempt to explore what steps we might take to avert conflict," he said on one occasion."""

He was RIGHT then and he's RIGHT now.

Thank you, Greg, for highlighting this moment in history. It obviously makes the revisionist neocons squirm, and that is all the more reason to continue the discussion. We can NEVER forget that we were lied into the Iraq War based on false pretenses. We can NEVER forget what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of the Republican Party have done to this country and this military in the name of "freedom."

Posted by: Ethan2010 | June 28, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

thanks Jake, fixed...

Posted by: Greg Sargent | June 28, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

You're welcome.

Posted by: JakeD2 | June 28, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

"cowed by Bush's swaggering popularity"

The way I remember it, we had a "war president" that Rove decided, months ahead, was the way to go into the 2002 elections. How could the Democrats dare go against the drums of war during an election? This was the dastardly trick of Rovian politics that worked so well. But, Byrd knew it was more important than just an election and showed the proper courage.

In 2004, the swaggering little man, Bush,was still able to buffalo too many of the American electorate (and shamefully, even paint Kerry as a 'fake warrior').

Posted by: hrobert02 | June 28, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

All, check out Jon Kyl on Elena Kagan:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/plum-line/2010/06/kyl.html

Posted by: Greg Sargent | June 28, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

The Iraq War vote was another example of the Curse of the Senate. Everyone under 60 thinks they have what it takes to be President. And no potential nominee wanted to have an anti-war vote on their record. I don't think for a minute Obama would have voted his conscience if he had been in the Senate at that time either.

Posted by: NorwegianShooter | June 28, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

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