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The Democrats & National Security

1.

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?

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.

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.

3.

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. 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.

  5. 5

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

  6. 6

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

  7. 7

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

  8. 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.”

  9. 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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