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The Democrats & National Security

2.

Joe Biden has. In an interview with MSNBC, Senator Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was asked whether Democrats could be trusted on national security. He erupted:

I refuse to sit back like we did in 2000 and 2004. This administration is the worst administration in American foreign policy in modern history—maybe ever. The idea that they are competent to continue to conduct our foreign policy, to make us more secure and make Israel secure, is preposterous…. Every single thing they’ve touched has been a near disaster.5

Poll data show that voters are in fact beginning to share Biden’s view and at last question Republicans’ reliability on national security. On Election Day in 2004 exit polls showed that a majority of voters (49–44 percent) believed that the war in Iraq had made the country less safe. Yet those same exit polls gave Bush an 18-percent edge in handling national security.6 Between 2003 and 2006 the Republicans had as high as a thirty-point advantage over Democrats on the question of which party could best deal with Iraq. But in the summer of 2006 in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the Democrats were given their first lead in handling Iraq—a three-point edge. This has since been expanded to double digits—an advantage that helps explain the Democrats’ strong showing in the 2006 midterm elections. On handling international terrorism, too, the substantial Republican lead had dwindled by 2006; last year, for the first time, a majority of Americans (47–42 percent) said that the Democratic Party would do a better job protecting the country from security threats. President Bush did Republicans a disservice by wrongly conflating the invasion of Iraq and the “war on terror.” The setbacks in Iraq have undermined public perceptions of Republicans’ performance in combating terrorism more generally.

But the poll data raise three important questions. First, which voters have changed their minds? Interestingly, Democrats have improved their showing on security principally by convincing Democratic voters that their own party is more trustworthy than their opponents’. Independent voters still have slightly more faith that Republicans would better protect the country from terrorist attack. A June 2008 Rasmussen survey found unaffiliated voters still favored Republicans on national security by six points.

Second, will voters identify Senator McCain closely with the Republican Party, whose policies he has championed, or will he succeed in decoupling himself from a party whose national security credentials have been tarnished? Thus far, probably because of his record of personal heroism and his occasional criticisms of the Bush administration, many polls have judged him more suited to keeping the country safe than the faceless “Republican Party.”

Third, and most important for the future of US security and the Democratic Party, can Democrats do more than exploit Bush’s foreign policy blunders to gain a tactical electoral edge? Can they take advantage of the increased public confidence in their judgment to advance a distinct twenty-first-century foreign policy that voters will prefer and trust them to execute?

The first step toward undoing Republican dominance on foreign policy entails debunking the myth that conservative ideology enhances US national security. Here Peter Scoblic, the executive editor at The New Republic and former editor of Arms Control Today, does a great service in Us vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security. He considers five decades of arms control efforts in order to illuminate the common themes underlying hard-line conservative ideology on national security. He shows, most usefully, the continuity in conservative intellectual leadership across the years. John Foster Dulles wrote the Republicans’ foreign policy platform in 1952, denouncing the Democrats’ “futile and immoral policy of ‘containment,’ which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism.” Barry Goldwater denounced the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which William Buckley’s National Review termed a “nuclear Yalta.” And during his first term, Ronald Reagan and the Reaganauts appeared to argue that doing away with an evil regime was more important than preventing nuclear war.

Scoblic shows that these men had in common several core premises. One cannot coexist with evil-doers, who are irreparably “fallen,” and thus rollback is required. Negotiation is not merely pointless, it is costly “appeasement.” And the United States should participate in only those international institutions that are servants of American power; those that constrain American power are enemies of the national interest.

Scoblic’s book offers a terrifying glimpse of the persistent tendency of one militant strand of conservatism to pursue conflict over peace, arms races over arms control, and ideology over pragmatism. His analytic history is particularly strong in revealing how, in a world of uncontrolled forces, conservatives sought to impose complete control, whether by pursuing technological fixes (like the nuclear missile shield) or treating US security as if it were something that could simply be willed. Because many conservatives presume exceptional American virtue—and believe that this virtue is self-evident to others—they have also consistently failed to see how aggressive US actions can appear abroad, and how the fear they generate can give rise to threatening behavior by others, who believe they are acting in self-defense. Scoblic, who sympathetically describes Reagan’s shift from denunciation to negotiation with Gorbachev over nuclear arms reduction, writes that it had not previously “even occurred” to Reagan

that adopting a war-fighting strategy, beginning a widespread civil defense program, researching a missile shield, while increasing the military budget by 35 percent, starting a new bomber program, deploying a new ICBM, and deploying missiles in Europe could be construed as threatening.

Scoblic’s account becomes most chilling at the end, when the same conservative voices that had long preferred confrontation to cooperation—such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—actually become dominant players in George W. Bush’s executive branch. On January 21, 2000, a year before he would move into the White House, Bush said:

When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world. And we knew exactly who the “they” were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who “them” was. Today we’re not sure who the “they” are but we know they’re there.

Having suffered through what one diplomat called the “enemy deprivation syndrome of the 1990s,” September 11 gave hard-line conservatives an opportunity to apply their pre-hatched theories; and from the start they sought to unshackle the United States from international agreements and to reduce reliance on diplomatic engagement. When the Bush administration scored a rare recent diplomatic success, convincing North Korea to open up some of its nuclear records, Vice President Cheney was so disgusted by his own administration’s pragmatic decision to take Pyongyang off the US terrorist blacklist that he snapped at reporters, “I’m not going to be the one to announce this decision. You need to address your interest in this to the State Department.” He then abruptly ended the press encounter, and left the room.

What is striking about Scoblic’s account of the hard-line conservatives’ disdain for diplomacy and pragmatism is the resilience of the central tenets of their ideology. As they ridicule Senator Barack Obama’s willingness to engage in negotiations with America’s enemies, they seem unchastened by recent history. In 2003, for instance, when the reporter Jeffrey Goldberg told Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense, that US troops in Iraq had not been greeted with flowers, Feith said that the Iraqis had been too spooked by the presence of Saddam supporters to show their true emotions. “But,” he said, “they had flowers in their minds.”

Unfortunately, the Democrats have too often failed to contest such dangerous conservative fantasies. This is is the subject of Matthew Yglesias’s briskly written, provocative book entitled Heads in the Sand. Yglesias draws on the last decade of US foreign policy to build his case that the Democratic Party’s position on national security “has mostly been to play Charlie Brown perennially falling down as Lucy yanks away the football, swearing not to be fooled again….” In 2000 and 2004 Democrats did their best to move away from national security issues to other problems, such as Medicare, where they felt more at home, but they never put forward a strong foreign policy alternative. “Democrats,” he writes,

have tended to approach security debates from a reflexive posture of fear, preemptively assuming a defensive crouch from which it is impossible to practice politics effectively.

Charlie Brown, he writes, “needs a football of his own.”

Yglesias is persuasive in showing how mainstream Democrats, in the run-up to the war in Iraq, caricatured the antiwar left as a way of flaunting their national security bona fides. The intraparty squabble inhibited the creation of a pluralistic coalition united against the administration’s unilateralism and militarism. Yglesias also gives an important account of the different positions that led to Democratic acquiescence in the war in Iraq—an acquiescence that neutered or delayed many Democrats’ criticisms of the President. For some Democrats the Iraq war was the natural culmination of the thinking that earlier gave rise to President Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo. It is true that Clinton bypassed the UN Security Council in the war of 1999, but to charge, as Yglesias does, that there was “no difference” between the two wars procedurally or substantively is to ignore the coordination of the Kosovo war with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The basic attitude of the Bush administration was described by one of its officials quoted in Strobe Talbott’s recent book, The Great Experiment:

Your type agonizes, ours seizes opportunities. You see our interests in Iraq and in the UN as in tension with each other; we see an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

We don’t know how events in 2003 would have progressed without the Kosovo war, but it is hard to imagine that President Bush—a man who repudiated five treaties in his first year in office7 and has consistently ridiculed the UN—would have been deterred in any way by the absence of past precedent.

Moreover, while some prominent “liberal hawks” favored the Iraq war, plenty of those who had supported NATO action in Kosovo for humanitarian reasons opposed the war in Iraq on those or other grounds. Yglesias wrongly implies that support for one war inevitably entailed support for the other; he also unfortunately lends credence to the surprisingly prevalent fiction that Bush invaded Iraq for humanitarian purposes.

Still, NATO action in Kosovo did make UN Security Council authorization seem more optional than it had in the past. Also, the Kosovo war helped build support for the invasion of Iraq by contributing to the false impression that the US military was invincible. The mistaken recollection that the US victory over the Serbs was nearly effortless, combined with the Bush administration’s quick initial overthrow of the Taliban, caused many Democrats to agree with the Republican claim that the war in Iraq would in fact be the “cakewalk” that Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz promised.

  1. 5

    Interview with Senator Joe Biden on MSNBC, “Morning Joe,” May 23, 2008.

  2. 6

    ABC News Polling Unit and Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences at Stanford University, November 9, 2004.

  3. 7

    ABM, Kyoto, Small Arms, ICC, and Biological Weapons.

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