Opinion: By claiming Democrats support terrorism, Republicans hit a new low

If truth is the first casualty of war, dissent is the second. The United States has a long, ignominious history of attacks — both physical and rhetorical — on critics of its conflicts.

Loyalists during the American Revolution were sometimes tarred and feathered. Southern sympathizers in the North during the Civil War were arrested and held without trial. Critics of America’s involvement in World War I were arrested and deported. Anti-Vietnam War protesters were investigated and harassed by the FBI and attacked by police and blue-collar workers (“hard hats”).

Such excesses were not repeated during the Iraq War, thankfully, but anti-war advocates were still routinely slandered. The most common claim was that opponents of the invasion were, as Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) wrote, “objectively on [Saddam Hussein’s] side, and not neutral.” After Hussein’s capture in 2003 — which was as celebrated as Qasem Soleimani’s death is today — James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal claimed that “the Angry Left” was “pretty bummed.”

I was guilty of some over-the-top rhetoric myself. I wrote a strained op-ed in early 2003 arguing that anti-war protesters made conflict more likely by encouraging Hussein to hold out against U.S. demands. I now cringe when I read that column, because of course the anti-war protesters were right and I was wrong: The invasion of Iraq was a terrible idea even though Hussein was a terrible person who deserved what he got.

Instead of learning from past mistakes, President Trump and his unscrupulous supporters appear intent on repeating them by labeling all critics of his confrontation with Iran as traitors and supporters of terrorism. After Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) complained that he was not given advance notice of the drone strike that killed Soleimani, pardoned felon Dinesh D’Souza wrote, “Neither were the Iranians, and for pretty much the same reason.” Trump then retweeted this vile suggestion that Democrats were equivalent to anti-American terrorists. This week, Trump claimed that “elements” of the Democratic Party are “openly supporting Iran” — another noxious falsehood.

Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo falsely argue that the current crisis was created by President Barack Obama. Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R.-Ariz.) jumped in with a Photoshopped image of Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani even though the two men never met. His defense: “No one said this wasn’t photoshopped.” What a license to lie! When he’s caught, Gosar can simply say, “No one said this wasn’t false.”

Competing for the title of the most dishonest McCarthyite in Congress are Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), who said Democrats are “in love with terrorists” and “mourn Soleimani more than they mourn our Gold Star families,” and Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.), who accused Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) of being part of a “squad of Ayatollah sympathizers … spreading propaganda that divides our nation and strengthens our enemies.” But while dismaying and appalling, their vile comments are hardly surprising coming from such rabid Trump apologists.

We expect better from former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. Fat chance. Seemingly eager to shred the last remnants of her dignity, she said: “The only ones mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and Democrat Presidential candidates.” This is offensive and false. What most Democrats actually said was that Soleimani’s demise was a good thing (Joe Biden: “No American will mourn Qassem Soleimani’s passing”) before going on to raise well-warranted doubts about whether it’s wise, as Biden put it, to toss “a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”

Bernie Sanders, admittedly, went over the line by comparing the killing of Soleimani to Vladimir Putin “assassinating dissidents.” But Republicans have no standing to criticize him after giving Trump a pass for excusing Putin’s killing of dissidents by saying, “You think our country’s so innocent?” Likewise, Haley’s lame defense of her indefensible statement (“Leading Democrats are aggressively arguing that we would be better off if Qasem Suleimani was still alive today. That is effectively mourning his death”) falls apart, as my colleague Aaron Blake notes, because Trump expressed regret about Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. Does that mean Trump mourned Hussein’s death? And of course it’s pretty rich that Collins accuses Democrats of dishonoring Gold Star parents when the only person who has insulted them is Trump.

The Republican position seems to be that it’s fine to attack and undermine a Democratic president in his conduct of foreign policy (as 47 Republican senators did in 2015 when they sent a letter telling Iran’s leaders not to make a deal with Obama), but it’s treason to question anything a Republican president does. Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs compared Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to Benedict Arnold for criticizing an administration briefing and said: “It is a shame that this country which is benefiting so much from this president’s leadership does not understand their obligations to this leader who is making it possible.”

Theodore Roosevelt had a different view of what we owe the president. In 1918, he protested his successor Woodrow Wilson’s attempts to criminalize wartime dissent: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” So, by Roosevelt’s definition, guess who is being “treasonable”? Hint: It’s not Trump’s critics.

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN.

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