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The Democrats & National Security

Yglesias is most convincing when he discusses the other two factors behind the rush to war—an international security hawkishness among Democrats, who accepted Kenneth Pollack’s argument that Iraq was indeed a “gathering storm”; and domestic political opportunism rooted in the belief that Washington careers would be ruined by the failure to support a war that proved successful (the so-called “Sam Nunn effect,” after the Georgia senator whose presidential hopes were widely seen to have been dashed by his opposition to the first Gulf War).

Yglesias shows how, for the last five years, Democrats have allowed themselves to be hemmed in by the conservative mind-set about Iraq—arguing over tactics such as whether international support could be acquired, whether enough troops had been sent, or whether the surge has caused a drop in violence. They have neglected, meanwhile, to confront the Bush administration directly for its pursuit of global hegemony and seeming contempt for a rule-based liberal order. It wasn’t only Bush’s particular policies that happened to be foolish, Yglesias notes:

Conservative Republicans have not merely made some mistakes on Iraq, and some other mistakes on Iran, and some other mistakes on North Korea, plus some mistakes on Syria, while mishandling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, by coincidence, damaging our relationships with formerly close allies. Rather, they are making one big mistake in seeking to transform the United States’ role in the world… to that of an imperial superpower that seeks to use its national strength to dominate the world and needlessly heighten conflicts.

A believer in international institutions and international law, Yglesias rightly dismisses the proposal to replace the UN with a group of like-minded countries, such as the League of Democracies favored by McCain. “An action opposed by Russia and China will not suddenly gain new legitimacy in Russian or Chinese eyes simply because a group from which they are excluded says so,” he writes.

Having criticized the Democrats for failing to put forward an alternative strategy, Yglesias devotes fewer than ten pages at the end of his book to sketching one of his own. His brevity is partly justified by his basic argument—that the alternative is not “new” (he is irked by liberals’ tendency to “fetishize novelty”). Democrats, he writes, should turn back to the same “reciprocity, rules, institutions and cooperation” that in his view prevented major conflict in the second half of the twentieth century.


In a June interview with Fortune magazine, Charles Black, one of John McCain’s top campaign advisers, credited the assassination of Benazir Bhutto with improving McCain’s appeal in New Hampshire just ahead of the primary (a claim Jon Stewart termed the “Bhutto Bump”). “His knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be commander-in-chief,” Black said. “And it helped us.” He then went on to predict the effect of another terrorist attack on US soil on McCain’s presidential bid: “Certainly it would be a big advantage for him,” Black said. McCain had to dissociate himself from this remark but it seemed to lay bare Republican thinking.

McCain has tried to turn the 2008 election into a vote on national security. He believes that he has an edge in presenting himself as a natural commander in chief and in describing Obama as a rookie who is simply too naive to know how to deal with a deadly world. At a town hall meeting in June the Arizona senator read aloud a recent statement by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in which the Iranian leader again suggested Israel should “disappear.” “It’s a very clear choice, and whether it be on Iran, or whether it be on Iraq, or whether it be on other national security issues,” McCain said, “Senator Obama does not have the experience and the knowledge and clearly the judgment, my friends.”

McCain has pledged to continue many of Bush’s national security policies. He backed Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he raised the possibility of military action against Iran, and he deplored granting the right of habeas corpus to detainees. He has three main tactics for seizing public trust in the area of national security. The first is to invoke, however implicitly, his own military service. When Obama criticized McCain for his refusal to support Senator Jim Webb’s proposal to increase college tuition benefits for recent veterans, McCain lashed out: “I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

McCain’s second tactic is to evoke what he claims will be the costs of “embracing defeat” in Iraq—an al-Qaeda base, a genocide that will make Srebrenica “look like a Sunday-school picnic,” and a regional war that will undermine US interests in the Middle East. Since voters have seen the debacles of the Republican-led status quo, McCain has to paint an even grimmer imagined picture of the costs of Democratic national security leadership.

His third tactic is to try to impose on Obama the conservative caricature of “liberals”—as weak, naive, elitist, and unfit to lead in a time of existential threats. Here McCain follows the example of Karl Rove at a conservative Republican gathering in New York in 2004: “Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.”

How can Obama and his Democratic colleagues expose once and for all the fallacies in the conservative approach to national security, while putting forward a convincing alternative? They must start by not shying from the security debate or relying, with quiet relief, on polls showing that (unlike in 2004) only 4 percent of Americans today view terrorism as their top concern. Democrats must instead seize the advantage the polls show they could have on security issues. This means talking early and often about national security and going on the offensive by strongly presenting the foreign policy plans already devised, whether by members of Congress or by the Obama campaign.8 It also means explaining how each plan—whether for retrieving loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union or for assisting Iraqi refugees in Syria—advances the central goal of keeping Americans safe. Democrats can break with their reputation for squeamishness about national security issues by showing their ease and confidence in dealing with these topics. Instead of changing the subject when national security issues arise, they should look forward to taking part in detailed foreign policy discussions that allow them to show their new strength.

They must also answer McCain’s apocalyptic claims about the effects of a US withdrawal from Iraq. Too often on Capitol Hill or in the primary battle, Democrats have confidently suggested that since the US-led invasion brought savage sectarian killing to Iraq, a US departure will rid the country of much of its violence. Critics of President Bush have seemed to imply that no serious harm will flow from a US withdrawal. But American voters realize that the effects of a US drawdown are in fact unknowable. The failure to acknowledge any possible humanitarian or strategic risks of leaving makes Democrats sound less sophisticated than they are, and deprives them of the chance to describe their plans to draw down troops in a careful and strategically sound way. McCain’s alarmist forecast thus goes unchallenged.

Prominent Democrats must drive home the continuing costs of remaining in Iraq—costs to Iraq, the region, Afghanistan,9 US military readiness, and national security as a whole—while describing the specific ways an Obama administration would limit the harmful consequences of withdrawal. (In fact, Obama outlined such plans in a speech last year but it got little attention and needs reinforcement from the Democratic echo chamber.)

Obama has long stated his intention to retain a Quick-Reaction Force in the region to carry out counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and other such networks. He has made clear his concern for Iraqi civilians in mixed neighborhoods who might be more vulnerable following a withdrawal of US combat brigades. He would offer these civilians fair notice of US plans and would be open to relocating those who would feel more secure if they moved. He has promised $2 billion to assist the two million Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries. He would establish a war crimes commission to gather the testimony of survivors and put militia leaders on notice that they may eventually be prosecuted. Obama’s plan to meet with the region’s heads of state is the first of many steps that will be required to prevent regional conflict.

Since Vietnam there has never been a more auspicious time for the Democratic Party to establish close relations with the US military. Building on Obama’s October 2002 speech explaining his opposition to the war in Iraq, Democrats can continue to argue that Obama and his party will never do what the Republicans have done: send US service members to fight unnecessary wars. He will not stretch the US military and military families to their breaking points by extending tours of duty beyond what is tolerable. He will not order young cadets and reservists to carry out cruel and inhuman acts against foreign detainees and then abandon them when it becomes politically inconvenient, allowing them to be court-martialed while those who authorized the practices take up high-paying jobs at corporate law firms or prestigious teaching posts at top-flight law schools.

Democrats should make it clear that they will listen to the military’s pleas to make major improvements in the civilian components of the government that work with the military on policing, governance, and reconstruction. Republicans have had eight years to respond to the appeals of US generals like David Petraeus who have begged for more and better-equipped civilian partners to join US soldiers; yet more US personnel still serve in US military marching bands than in the foreign service.

With their grossly inadequate veterans’ care, moreover, the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress badly failed many of those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is Democrats in Congress such as Jim Webb and Obama who have put forth the health care and college tuition plans that treat American veterans with the respect and dignity they deserve during their difficult transitions to civilian life. The Republicans’ failure to support first-class care for returning service members is not only immoral; it is contributing to the difficulty the armed forces are now having in recruiting and retaining volunteers.

Democrats must also help voters see—and reject once and for all—the false choice that George W. Bush and now McCain offer between militarism and “appeasement.” When John F. Kennedy was ridiculed by the right for his plans to negotiate with Communist countries, he rejected outright the idea that “we have only two choices: appeasement or war, suicide or surrender, humiliation or holocaust, to be either Red or dead.” Obama and the Democrats today can show that while the United States refused to talk to America’s adversaries, Iran and North Korea both advanced much further in their nuclear development.

And finally Democrats must play up the sharp differences that exist between the two parties on national security. Here the voters seem to be accepting in larger numbers the principles of the Democratic foreign policy platform, but Democrats have not yet locked in their advantages. Three framing themes seem particularly worth emphasizing:

The New versus the Old. Democrats should argue that their foreign policy is particularly well suited to meeting today’s unconventional threats—those that cross borders. Meeting such threats will sometimes entail using military force, but it will almost always require mustering global cooperation. Here the Democrats must point to the security consequences of the loss of respect for the United States around the world: the US requires the assistance of others to aid it in combating terrorism, halting nuclear proliferation, and reversing global warming. In scorning international law and public opinion abroad, Republicans have alienated those the US needs to share the burden of neutralizing threats that Americans deem the most pressing. Democrats for instance, will be more effective in securing the cooperation of intelligence and law enforcement officials in the eighty countries in which al-Qaeda is now active.

Deeds versus Words. In his National Security Strategy for 2002, Bush used the words “liberty” eleven times, “freedom” forty-six times, and “dignity” nine times; yet people who live under oppression around the world have seen few benefits from President Bush’s freedom doctrine. Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under Bush, put it best when he said, “Since 9/11 our principal export to the world has been our fear.” The gulf between America’s rights rhetoric and the abuses carried out against detainees in American custody has been fatal to American credibility. Obama needs to restore that credibility by ending those excesses, and by following through on his pledge to launch a foreign aid initiative rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s core democratic value: freedom from fear. The United States should invest in a long-term “rule of law” initiative that takes up the burden of helping other countries and international organizations to build workable legal systems in the developing world.

Law versus Lawlessness. In arguing for closing down Guantánamo, ending extraordinary rendition, and returning to the Geneva Conventions, Democrats must remind voters of the national security consequences of being perceived as a lawbreaker. More terrorists take up arms against the United States, while fewer countries take up arms along with the United States. In stressing the importance of law, Democrats should also repudiate the extraordinary and illegitimate presidential power seized by Bush (and generally supported by McCain). As a constitutional lawyer, Obama is in a unique position to argue that as commander in chief, he will never hold himself or his advisers above the law.

For the first time in sixteen years, the Democrats in 2008 could end up in control of the House, Senate, and White House. This could enable them to scale back the ballooning budget deficit, put in place a universal health care plan, move the country along the path to energy independence, and commit the United States to combating climate change. Although few have focused on this, the Democratic Party today is also in a strong position to show that it will be more reliable in keeping Americans safe during the twenty-first century. If the party succeeds in doing this, it will not only wake up the United States and the world from a long eight-year nightmare; it will also lay to rest the enduring myth that strong and wrong is preferable to smart and right.

—July 17, 2008

  1. 8

    Obama has assembled several hundred high-level experts grouped into two dozen working groups, each of which has developed plans on issues as diverse as “reform of international financial institutions” and “sub-Saharan African food policy.”

  2. 9

    In early July Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq.” He continued, “Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there.”

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