August 19, 2005

The "Moral Authority" of Cindy Sheehan

Jonathan Chait of the L.A. Times has an interesting piece on Cindy Sheehan and the "Moral Authority" claims being made by those arguing her case. I am no longer a fan of Jonathan Chait, who makes his visceral hatred for George Bush and all things Republican no secret in his writing. However, I will grudgingly admit that, on this occasion, he does have a point:

The left seems to be embracing the notion of moral authority in part as a tactical response to the right. For years, conservatives have said or implied that if you criticize a war, you hate the soldiers. During the Clinton years, conservatives insisted that the president lacked "moral authority" to send troops into battle because he had avoided the draft as a youth or, later, because he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

So adopting veterans or their mourning parents as spokesmen is an understandable counter-tactic. It was a major part of the rationale behind John Kerry's candidacy. The trouble is, plenty of liberals have come to believe their own bleatings about moral authority. Liberal blogs are filled with attacks on "chicken hawk" conservatives who support the war but never served in the military. A recent story in the antiwar magazine Nation attacked my New Republic editor, Peter Beinart, a supporter of the Iraq war, for having "no national security experience," as if Nation editors routinely served in the Marine Corps.

The silliness of this argument is obvious. There are parents of dead soldiers on both sides. Conservatives have begun trotting out their own this week. What does this tell us about the virtues or flaws of the war? Nothing.

Or maybe liberals think that having served in war, or losing a loved one in war, gives you standing to oppose wars but not to support them. The trouble is, any war, no matter how justified, has a war hero or relative who opposes it.

Sheehan also criticizes the Afghanistan war. One of the most common (and strongest) liberal indictments of the Iraq war is that it diverted troops that could have been deployed against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Are liberals who make that case, yet failed to enlist themselves, chicken hawks too?

When the Cindy Sheehan spectacle started, it was not uncommon for Maureen Dowd and other liberal commentators to try to deflect all criticism of Ms. Sheehan's tactics or her radical views by claiming that she alone had the moral authority to speak on the war because she lost a loved one in the war. It was a very stupid argument. It was only inevitable that many families of servicemen, who do not agree with Ms. Sheehan's views and support the mission that their loved ones died for, would come forward to challenge Ms. Sheehan.

The real cynical side of me wonders if Jonathan Chait would have written this column and challenged the "Moral Authority" argument if the pro-war family members of fallen soldiers had not come forward. However, in this case, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
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