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Irregular Joe

Watching Joe Lieberman go around the bend over the last couple years is one of the strangest things I've ever seen in politics. Lieberman was always a foreign policy hawk and a capital gains tax cutter, and he generally took enormous pleasure in staying in the right's good graces. But it is also these very qualities--his ideological moderation, his aversion to conflict, his timorous demeanor--that have made his recent apoplexy so weird.

Lieberman, naturally, sees things a bit differently. In a series of speeches, op-eds, and interviews, he has been making the case that he, Joe Lieberman, has resolutely stood behind his lifelong ideology while the entire rest of the Democratic Party has gone off the McGovernite cliff. In his telling, the party was hawkish from World War II through the early 1960s. Then it was taken over by left-wing isolationists who were "viscerally opposed to the use of military force." Under Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the party recovered its hawkish legacy, but, in the last few years, Democrats-- presumably including Clinton and Gore themselves--have "resurrected the profoundly wrong and persistently unsuccessful McGovern-Carter worldview."

You might wonder precisely which ways McGovern's nefarious ideology is making itself felt. Lieberman says that Democrats, who were once "unafraid to make moral judgments about the world beyond our borders," now "minimize the seriousness of the threat from Islamic extremism." Lieberman prefers them to use morally confident language like this:

The terrorists are at war with us. The threat is from violent extremists who are a small minority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, but the threat is real. They distort Islam. They kill man, woman, and child; Christian and Hindu, Jew and Muslim. They seek to create a repressive caliphate. To defeat this enemy, we must understand who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for.

Oh, wait--that passage was Barack Obama, speaking last summer. Lieberman further complains, "The top foreign policy priority of the Democratic Party has not been to expand the size of our military for the war on terror or to strengthen our democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East or to prevail in Afghanistan. It has been to pull our troops out of Iraq."

This is a really sneaky formulation. Lieberman is implying that Democrats oppose expanding the military, prevailing in Afghanistan, etc. Actually, they favor all those things. (Obama has proposed adding 92,000 new troops to the military.) Lieberman's statement is literally true--Democrats put a higher priority on Iraq than those other issues-- but misleading. Just because something isn't your "top" foreign policy priority doesn't mean it isn't a high priority.

Yes, Democrats do favor a withdrawal from Iraq. They think the U.S. occupation is not helping to produce a stable government in Baghdad. This is certainly a debatable view, but it just isn't the same thing as lacking confidence in the virtues of American democracy or viscerally opposing the use of force. In Pakistan, the Democratic presidential candidate has advocated military strikes against Al Qaeda, while the GOP candidate has ridiculed such action as impractical. Imagine what Lieberman would say if it was the other way around.

Lieberman's history, which imagines a binary fight between hawks and isolationists, is woefully mistaken. In fact, during the cold war there were three camps: anti-interventionists on the left, liberal internationalists in the center, and hard-line anti-communists on the right. The left opposed the cold war. The center favored containment. The right deemed coexistence with communism unacceptable and advocated "rollback" of communism.

Lieberman's foreign policy views are in the tradition of the right, not the center. In the 1990s, he promoted "rogue state rollback," a neoconservative doctrine that's the direct lineal descendant of cold war rollback. Right-wing anti-communist hardliners opposed negotiations or arms control agreements with the enemy and, at various points, raged against Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan for their soft line.

My colleague J. Peter Scoblic's new book, U.S. vs. Them, opens with the story of conservatives in 1959 creating the "Committee Against Summit Entanglements" to express their horror that Eisenhower would sit down with Soviet premier Khrushchev. The Committee's logic was nearly identical to that which Lieberman now deploys against Obama for his willingness to meet with Iran's leadership. Lieberman tries to use this issue to show that Obama falls outside the mainstream tradition of U.S. foreign policy, but he winds up proving this about himself.

And, just as Lieberman casts himself as the sole surviving heir to the liberal internationalist tradition, he likewise presents himself as one of the few--or possibly the only--independent-minded souls remaining in a party now controlled by rabid partisan bloggers. "Instead of challenging their opinions," says Lieberman with characteristic disappointment, "far too many Democratic leaders have kowtowed to them." In a previous speech, he urged an audience of international-studies graduates to remain independent like him. It may hurt your popularity, he explained, but, "far more important, you will not lose your convictions about what you believe is best for the security of our great country."

There's hardly any sense in which Lieberman is an independent figure. He's become a cog in the Republican message machine. He may be independent from liberal bloggers, but the conservative equivalent--partisan shouters like Sean Hannity--are his treasured pals. Lieberman even continues to embrace lunatic preacher John Hagee--whose many daft ideas include his belief that the Holocaust fulfilled God's will--even after John McCain repudiated him.

Lieberman explains that he calls himself an "independent Democrat" because the Democratic Party's foreign policy ideals "exist in me today independent of the current Democratic Party, which has rejected them." This is a wildly egocentric interpretation. Democrats started questioning the war because the war was going badly, while Lieberman remained--to borrow a phrase--in a spider hole of denial. Most supported him in his 2006 primary fight but then endorsed the party nominee when he lost, because that's what political parties do.

Lieberman seems to think Democrats lost faith in America. No, Joe, just in you.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

Click for the previous and next article in TNR’s Veeptacular. And for a full index of our 2008 v.p. coverage, click here.