Ever since George McGovern’s failed Presidential campaign of 1972, perhaps even before, Americans have perceived the Democratic Party as ‘weak’ on issues of ‘national security’. The result is that common folk have tended to flock to the GOP when foreign policy issues dominate. This relative ‘strength’ of the GOP on issues of war and peace has its roots in the Cold War, where Republicans were mostly seen as ‘tougher’ on Communism, and more willing to commit vast resources to the military. With the end of the Soviet Union, the Democrats seemed to gain traction in the national security arena as it faded as an important issue. However, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 once again boosted the Republicans advantage: until now that is. Six years of seemingly endless war with few positive results to show for it may allow the Democrats to grab the mantle of the Party most trusted on issues of so-called national security, if they play their cards right.
The Democrats opportunity comes from the increasing realization of the American public that the security of the nation may rely as much on diplomacy and police work as it does on military action. Five years after Pearl Harbor, Americans could look back and see how their nation had triumphed and grown stronger in the face of Japanese and German aggression. Five years after 9/11, few Americans could say that the Bush/Cheney military response had made America stronger and more secure. It is becoming apparent that the ‘military only’ approach to combating al Qaeda is an utter failure.
The fact is, the United States is bogged down in two guerilla wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and has not caught the terrorist leader, Osama Bin Laden. While some important al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured, the al Qaeda terrorist insurgency seems to have morphed and re-constituted itself. And while Bush can rightly claim that there have been no major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001, there is no evidence that Bush’s actions have had anything to do with the absence of further atrocities. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggests that the U.S., while it has instituted significant changes to fend off future attacks, is increasingly vulnerable at home and abroad.
In other words, the Republicans have shown themselves to be ‘boobs’ when it comes to combating terrorism. The only thing the public gives Bush and the GOP credit for is its willingness to trample on their civil liberties and detain and torture terror suspects. There is a part of the human mind, when it is paralyzed by fear,that is willing to accept such breaches of its freedoms. And, perhaps, many Americans secretly worry that the Democrats will pay too much attention to civility and due process and not ‘take the gloves’ off to destroy the terrorist threat.
But if the Democrats play their cards right, they can seize the initiative on the terrorist issue. First, they can point out the above-mentioned failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on al Qaeda. Secondly, and more importantly, they can show an increasingly non-interventionist public that American interference in the affairs of other nations is the main reason the U.S. has left itself vulnerable. Finally, the Democrats can and should demonstrate that reliance on the military to solve all conflicts is a dead end road that will lead to more, not less, threats from terrorists. To be sure, many Americans believe that the ‘tough’ and ‘hard line’ will scare the enemy in to obedience; or if not into obedience, into destruction. But the poor results obtained from Bush and Cheney’s hard line policies seem to be making more and more of our fellow citizens realize that a more sophisticated and intelligent approach needs to be taken.
Of course, Democrats will still have to emphasize security measures at home and demonstrate how the Republicans have under funded Homeland Security. But ultimately, the greatest thing America can do to decrease the number of people abroad who want to kill us is to stop engaging in foreign adventures and propping up foreign dictatorships. In other words, to stop using military force alone as the solution to all foreign policy challenges. (And yes, that includes the end of Bill Clinton-like adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo, too.)
Will the Democrats finally exorcise the ghosts of 1972 and demonstrate there are limits to how military action can enhance America’s national security? This is an open question, but I sincerely hope they do. The Republicans should be seen as they really are: not as great defenders of our collective security, but as a party that naively believes that mindless and endless warfare and grossly excessive military spending will prevent Americans from getting killed by determined Islamic fanatics. The overwhelming evidence is that this unthinking approach benefits only military contractors like Dyncorp and Blackwater and international terrorists like Osama Bin Laden. It does little to increase the safety and security of our great nation.