TWO WEEKS AGO Senator Ted Kennedy uttered what may turn out to be the single most disgusting remark made about the United States in the course of the current war. The reaction to his slander -- or rather, the lack of reaction -- speaks volumes about the moral bankruptcy of the American left.
Speaking in the Senate on May 10, Kennedy had this to say about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal:
"On March 19, 2004, President Bush asked, 'Who would prefer that Saddam's torture chambers still be open?' Shamefully, we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management -- US management."
This was not a blurted, off-the-cuff comment -- Kennedy was reading from a prepared text. It was not a shocked first reaction to the abuses at Abu Ghraib -- the story had broken more than a week earlier. Incredibly, the senior senator from Massachusetts really was equating the disgraceful mistreatment of a few Iraqi prisoners by a few American troops with the unspeakable sadism, rape, and mass murder that had been routine under Saddam Hussein.
Kennedy's vile calumny should have triggered outrage. Here was the most prominent liberal politician in America accusing his own government of the very savagery it said it had gone to war to uproot. It was the worst kind of anti-American poison, and it was coming not from a crackpot with no following but from one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. It should have unleashed an uproar.
It unleashed nothing.
Oh, there was a reproachful editorial here and there, and Kennedy was condemned on a few radio talk shows. But in the mainstream media and the Democratic Party establishment, Kennedy's words were a nonevent. There was no demand for an apology. There was no storm of criticism. There was no sense of astonishment that a leading US lawmaker could so recklessly denigrate his nation's military in wartime. (A spokesman said yesterday that Kennedy "doesn't back away at all" from the May 10 comment, and rejects the interpretation given to it "by right-wing radio shows.")
When Kennedy appeared on NBC's "Today" program on May 13, it didn't even occur to host Matt Lauer to challenge him on the appalling equivalence he had drawn three days earlier. Instead of pressing Kennedy for an explanation, Lauer let him go even further in his reckless campaign to drive down American morale and undercut support for the war.
"This is just a continuation of disaster after disaster in terms of Iraq policy," Kennedy seethed. "We are the most hated nation in the world as a result of this disastrous policy in the prisons. I think our troops are in greater danger than they have been before. I think it's going to be tougher to fight Al Qaeda. I think the chances of another attack here in the United States have been enhanced." With barely a change of pronoun, those words could have been dictated by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Moqtada al-Sadr, or the mullahs in Iran. Yet neither Lauer nor his colleagues appeared to see anything amiss in a US senator spouting such bitter anti-American propaganda.
To be sure, Kennedy has a long history of opposing American interests in the world. During the Cold War, he fought time and time again against US efforts to promote liberty and repel totalitarianism. From demanding the abandonment of South Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s to advocating a "nuclear freeze" in the 1980s to opposing the liberation of Kuwait in the 1990s, Kennedy has repeatedly raised his voice and cast his vote in support of some of the world's worst tyrants. His furious opposition to the current American campaign in Iraq is in keeping with that ignoble record.
But even for Kennedy, it crosses a line to claim that US forces in Iraq are no better than the monster they toppled. It suggests that his partisan hunger to defeat President Bush is so great that he would rather see America fail in Iraq than let Bush reap the political benefits of success. Which is why the silence of the liberal establishment in the face of Kennedy's terrible falsehood is so ominous.
For if the United States loses in Iraq, the consequences will be catastrophic. In the words of Mort Kondracke, the respected editor of the Washington journal Roll Call, "If Iraq descends into chaos, Iraqis who have sided with the United States will be butchered. . . . America will cease to be seen as the leader in the world, no matter who is president. The forces of evil -- Islamic fanatics and Saddamist killers -- will be ascendant in the Middle East. The forces of democracy and liberalism will be defeated."
The war for Iraq and the larger war against Islamist terrorism are no less crucial than were the Cold War and World War II. The stakes are enormous. All Americans -- liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans -- ought to be pulling for a US victory, whether or not they favored going into Iraq.
There is nothing wrong with political passion. Nor is there anything wrong with criticizing the administration's conduct of the war. But accusing the US Army of being no better than Ba'athist torturers is not constructive criticism. Shrugging when a formidable politician broadcasts such a terrible libel is not responsible citizenship. Those are forms of propaganda, and propaganda in wartime is a lethal weapon. To turn that weapon against the United States is to give aid and comfort to the enemy.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)