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The Democrats & National Security


Since the Vietnam War the Republican Party has developed a reputation for having a superior approach to national security. Americans have long trusted the views of Democrats on the environment, the economy, education, and health care, but national security is the one matter about which Republicans have maintained what political scientists call “issue ownership.”

Partly, this is for particular historical reasons. President Eisenhower initiated US involvement in Vietnam, and President Nixon escalated the war in 1969 and kept US troops on the ground in a manifestly unwinnable mission until 1975. But John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were tagged as the primary culprits. President Carter was widely seen as having bungled the Iran hostage rescue mission and having responded ineffectually to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although he substantially increased US military spending, he was never forgiven for his claim that Americans had “an inordinate fear of communism.”

President Reagan of course did more than any other person to entrench the Republican reputation for toughness on national security. He ran his election campaign against Carter’s apparent softness, brought the Iran hostages home upon taking over the White House, nearly doubled the US military budget, invaded tiny Grenada, and staged covert operations throughout Latin America and beyond. Many “Reagan Democrats” crossed party lines precisely because they saw him as more able to confront Communist threats, and the fall of the Berlin wall confirmed their view.

President Clinton, elected just after the cold war ended at a time when national security was not a dominant concern, never really recovered from having been branded a draft-dodger, alienating the military by his botched effort to integrate gays into the armed services, or presiding over the 1993 fiasco in Somalia. Even though US military operations in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999 cost no casualties and largely ended ethnic cleansing in both regions, they were not traditional conflicts; NATO’s intervention was not seen as promoting vital national interests, and thus made little dent in the public understanding of Democrats’ competence in managing national security. Throughout the 1990s, the Democratic Party made only small progress in chipping away at what by 1999 was a thirty-point edge for Republicans on national security in public opinion surveys.

In the 2000 election George W. Bush, who had shirked military service, succeeded in presenting himself as more reliable on national security than Al Gore. This was despite Gore’s service in Vietnam, his seven years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, his four years on the House Intelligence Committee, his help in brokering a deal to dismantle the nuclear arsenal of former Soviet republics, and his creation of binational commissions with Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to deal with issues ranging from AIDS to disarmament. In 2004, too, even before the Swift Boat campaign, John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, had an uphill climb convincing voters that Democrats made reliable commanders in chief during wartime—even though a majority of Americans had already come to regret that the sitting commander in chief had chosen to wage war in the first place.

In the 2004 election, exit polls showed that Bush led John Kerry by nearly 20 percent on the question of which man would better protect the nation against terrorist attacks. The images of John Kerry as a hunter were greeted with greater ridicule than that of George W. Bush wearing a flight suit and staging a landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier off the coast of California. To paraphrase President Clinton’s 2002 remark, American voters generally seem to prefer strong and wrong to smart and right.1

The performance and perception of recent presidents have had the greatest impact in shaping the public trust on national security. But other factors have given Republicans the edge over Democrats. The demographics of the US military are such that the officer corps and rank-and-file have traditionally leaned to the Republican side. Many US service members are observant Christians. During the last few years Democrats in political life have begun to embrace faith unselfconsciously, refusing to allow the Republican political establishment to usurp this terrain. Still, the military will likely continue to recruit a greater percentage of soldiers from red states in the South and middle America than from the coasts or major urban areas. With so many soldiers and officers counting themselves as Republicans, voters naturally associate the party with the country’s primary symbol of security, those in uniform.

The Republican domestic agenda may also influence voters’ perceptions about national security. The party that opposes strict gun control laws, seeks to crack down on illegal immigrants, wages a “war” on drugs, extols the “three strikes and you’re out” approach to criminal sentencing, and has few qualms about capital punishment has been seen as “tougher,” regardless of the effectiveness of these policies.

This faith in Republican toughness has had profound electoral consequences. Since 1968, with the single exception of the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Americans have chosen Republican presidents in times of perceived danger and Democrats in times of relative calm.

The last eight years of Republican-run foreign policy, however, have undermined US security and global stability in highly visible ways. Since a Republican president took over in 2001, the United States has invaded two countries. In Afghanistan, after swift success ousting the Taliban, the administration made the inexplicable initial decision to reject NATO’s help, insisting that the international military presence not extend beyond Kabul. It spent a pittance on reconstruction—$737 million in 2003 as compared with $10 billion in 2007. Further, with al-Qaeda on the run, the administration spent 2002 mobilizing support for its March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which required it to divert precious units from eastern Afghanistan. According to many observers, this allowed the Taliban and the al-Qaeda leadership to snatch survival from the jaws of defeat. Violence has spread to once-peaceful pockets of territory, and the number of suicide attacks has increased from two in 2003 to 137 in 2007. In June 2008, forty-six American and allied forces died in Afghanistan, more than during any other month since the war began nearly seven years ago, and more than the thirty-one Americans who died in Iraq that month.

As for Iraq, the war has taken the lives of more than four thousand American soldiers, created another front for US forces in combating al-Qaeda, and eroded US army readiness to such an extent that US commanders concede that the army is at its “breaking point.” Since 2001, Congress has appropriated about $640 billion for the “Global War on Terror,” most of this for operations in Iraq. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in June found that the United States still lacked a strategy for meeting its goals in Iraq. The GAO found that violence had diminished somewhat; but according to the Pentagon, the number of Iraqi units capable of carrying out operations without US assistance continued to hover around 10 percent.

While the Iraqi authorities passed legislation readmitting some lower- level Baathists to the parliament, legislation was stalled on oil-sharing and the holding of provincial elections. Between 2005 and 2007, the GAO report found, the Iraq government spent less than a quarter of the $27 billion it budgeted for its own reconstruction efforts. And when it came to essential services, water supplies had improved, but electricity shortages persisted, meeting only about half of Iraqi demand by early May 2008.2 Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank found in 2007 that the Iraq war had brought about a 600 percent increase in the average number of annual jihadist terrorist attacks throughout the world. Even if one didn’t count attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the incidence of terrorism increased 35 percent worldwide.3

By now, it is clear that “enhanced interrogation techniques”—in fact, torture—were authorized from the top of the Bush administration and were widely used from Afghanistan to Guantánamo to Iraq to “black sites” such as covert prison facilities or off-shore aircraft carriers. Al-Qaeda has made use of these excesses as recruitment propaganda. Donald Rumsfeld may be remembered for his policy failures, but he should also be remembered for the question he posed in a leaked memo in 2003: “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Many press reports and National Intelligence Estimates offer a resounding “no” to that question. According to polls, many voters are persuaded by the administration that torture can be justified. They probably have not heard from terror specialists who say that useful intelligence comes less from detainees than from informants, communities, and familiar sources. US agents have found that these sources began drying up as American mistreatment of prisoners became known.

Based on my experience in talking to al-Qaeda members,” John Cloonan, an FBI counterterrorism specialist testified to Congress recently,

I am persuaded that revenge, in the form of a catastrophic attack on the homeland, is coming, that a new generation of jihadist martyrs, motivated in part by the images from Abu Ghraib, is, as we speak, planning to kill Americans and that nothing gleaned from the use of coercive interrogation techniques will be of any significant use in forestalling this calamitous eventuality.4

The effect of the Bush administration’s policies is that, notwithstanding the towering US military budget, which drastically exceeds that of its rivals, America’s global influence has plummeted. This is evident in the administration’s failure to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. According to the IAEA, Iran now has 3,300 centrifuges to enrich uranium, as compared to the 160 the IAEA confirmed during a visit to Iran in 2003. Iran’s political influence, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, or Gaza, has been dramatically expanded as a result of the US quagmire in Iraq and the crude strategies the US used to eliminate Iran’s two greatest enemies—the Baathist and Taliban regimes.

Since the greatest potential risk to American lives comes from nuclear terrorism, and since the Bush administration leaders infamously invoked “mushroom clouds” as grounds for invading Iraq, one would have expected them to work zealously to retrieve or secure loose nuclear material. Instead, President Bush attempted to cut funding for the Nunn-Lugar program to secure such material in the former Soviet Union. In declaring an openness to using nuclear weapons for tactical purposes and in discarding the longstanding nuclear doctrine of “no first use,” the administration weakened the nonproliferation regime and created additional incentives for nonnuclear countries to acquire nuclear weapons. The President also maintained uncritical support for the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf despite the fact that Musharraf sheltered Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, who was caught selling nuclear secrets to North Korea and Iran.

Bush’s stated goals were to strengthen the US military, bring stability to Iraq and Afghanistan, combat terrorism, prevent rogue states and militants from acquiring nuclear weapons, and promote democracy around the world. In each case, two terms of Republican rule have been disastrous for US national security. The question is: Have American voters noticed?

  1. 1

    Clinton’s actual quote: “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody who’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.” From a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, 2002.

  2. 2

    Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq: Progress Report: Some Gains Made, Updated Strategy Needed,” June 23, 2008. See www.gao.gov/docsearch/abstract.php?rptno=GAO-08-837.

  3. 3

    Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “The Iraq Effect: War Has Increased Terrorism Sevenfold Worldwide,” Mother Jones, March/April 2007.

  4. 4

    John E. Cloonan, June 10, 2008. “Coercive Interrogation Techniques: Do They Work, Are They Reliable, and What did the FBI Know About Them?” Opening Comments by John E. Cloonan, Retired FBI Special Agent, available at http://judiciary.senate.gov/testimony.cfm?id=3399&wit_id=7228.

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