Politics Follow Success on National Security

December 20, 2011

Political attitudes are beginning to catch up to a quiet sea change in American foreign policy: progressive policy success is earning public trust, while conservative overreach is facing a backlash from voters and our military leadership. As The Washington Post’s David Ignatius notes, among other things, alliances are stronger, Iran is weaker and al Qaeda is on the run. Lacking a substantive counterattack, conservatives have resorted to undermining the ideal of civilian leadership enshrined in our Constitution — attacks that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey calls “offensive.” Former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke commented that conservative candidates’ attacks “are telling voters in advance that there is an important part of the president’s job that they are unwilling to perform.”

A progressive approach to foreign policy is working – and paying dividends. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes, “[I]f you step back from the daily squawk box, some trends are clear: Alliances are stronger, the United States is (somewhat) less bogged down in foreign wars, Iran is weaker, the Arab world is less hostile and al-Qaeda is on the run.” The New York Times reported earlier this month that, “[A]ttacking the Obama administration on foreign policy may prove challenging. The administration can point to the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, its efforts opposing United Nations recognition for Palestinian statehood, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the weakening of Al Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy are healthy, and the president asserted before an audience at a New York fund-raiser last week that he has the best record on Israel of any president.” [David Ignatius, 9/2/11. New York Times, 12/6/11]

Rather than debate policy, conservatives have turned to attacking civilian leadership itself:  a tactic that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls “offensive.” Conservative candidates for president have repeatedly suggested that presidential leadership on national security consists of heeding advice from “generals on the ground.” As CNN reported after the GOP debate on foreign policy: “Romney made it clear he believes a president should listen to his commanders on the ground when making such a decision. ‘The commander-in-chief makes that decision based upon the input of people closest to the ground.’”

That is not the military view, however. As the National Journal reported last week: “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey blasted a common refrain heard on the GOP presidential campaign trail – that as president candidates would listen to the generals – as ‘offensive.’” Gen. Dempsey commented that, “I’ll probably make news with this but I find some of those articles about divergence or control of the generals to be kind of offensive to me… And here’s why. One of the things that makes us as a military profession in a democracy is civilian rule. Our civilian leaders are under no obligation to accept our advice; and that’s what it is. It’s advice. It’s military judgments, it’s alternatives, it’s options. And at the end of the day, our system is built on the fact that it will be our civilian leaders who make that decision and I don’t find that in any way to challenge my manhood, nor my position. In fact, if it were the opposite, I think we should all be concerned.” Furthermore, that particular conservative talking point shows a candidate is not ready to perform as president. As former Bush counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke has written, “In countries like Pakistan the president cannot tell the military what to do. Not so in America. But by offering to cede automatically to the will of military commanders, some presidential candidates are telling voters in advance that there is an important part of the president’s job that they are unwilling to perform.” [National Journal, 12/19/11. Martin Dempsey via National Journal, 12/19/11. Richard Clarke, 12/12/11]

Conservatives are no longer trusted on national security. Republicans have lost their traditional position as the leaders on national security, writes Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and chair of NSN’s advisory board. “Since John F. Kennedy, the GOP has ruled the foreign policy roost at election time and beyond. The Republicans monopolized the public trust on dealing with bad guys. The public felt they were tougher than the Democrats and better able to protect the nation. Now, the country could start feeling that Democrats could better protect their economic security than Republicans. Now, the decades-long era of Republican domination of America’s foreign policy debate may be slipping away. The stale national security language of Republican candidates follows nicely the teachings of their advisers. They’re almost all from the traditional political-military camp with little background in economics. Most also are George W. Bush/Dick Cheney/Don Rumsfeld retreads, with a dash of Reaganites and a sprinkling of realists thrown in. Very few follow the paths of America’s best realists, who also happen to be Republicans—such as George H.W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker.” [Leslie Gelb, 11/27/11]

Progressives now the leaders on national security. As Michael Cohen, senior fellow at the American Security Project, NSN board member and columnist for Foreign Policy’s 2012 Channel, writes: “For 2012, the foreign policy and national security discussion starts from an unusual jumping off point: both issues are a net plus for the Democratic candidate… For decades, Democrats have bent over backwards to neutralize that image by trying to sound as tough as Republicans on national security and occasionally supporting inadvisable foreign wars for fear of being attacked as weak (see: Vietnam, Iraq). But not since the 1940s, has foreign policy performance or acumen been seen as a Democratic advantage. This year it is… Obama’s success in wiping out the top echelons of al Qaeda, ending the unpopular war in Iraq, winding down the conflict in Afghanistan, and helping topple Qaddafi can be used to bat away GOP attacks — and perhaps be a rationale for why the president deserves four more years. National security is actually one of the few areas where Obama’s poll numbers provide glimmers of hope for the White House. The country generally gives him high marks for being a strong leader, for confronting terrorism, and for keeping Americans safe. Voters can expect to see campaign ads depicting the president’s foreign policy and military successes in a way that will provide them with a more comprehensive and positive impression of Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief.” [Michael Cohen, 11/16/11]

What We’re Reading

Kim Jong-un, son of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was declared the new leader of North Korea, as state officials publicly paid their respects to the deceased Kim.

Vice President Tariq al Hashimi of Iraq, a Sunni Muslim, is refuting charges that he ordered the assassination of government officials, alleging that the warrant for his arrest is religiously motivated.

Egypt’s interim military administration blamed protestors for instigating the resurgence in riots and violence in Tahrir Square that have killed 12 people in four days.

More than 70 defectors from the Syrian Army were shot dead by fellow soldiers as they tried to join anti-government protests, one day after Syrian officials allowed Arab League monitors to observe compliance with a negotiated cease-fire.

U.S. negotiators have reached a critical point in negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan concerning regional security and the status of detained Taliban militants.

Pakistan’s chief justice demanded that President Asif Ali Zardari respond to allegations that he was involved in the distribution of a memo asking the United States to intervene in Pakistani security affairs.

Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Serbian leaders to end their blockade of Kosovo and resume talks aimed at normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, a former province.

German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters that he wants to work with his British counterparts to help Europe recover from the current economic crisis, despite Britain’s insistence on special protections for the London financial sector.

Nearly 1000 Filipinos have been killed in the past week in the aftermath of Typhoon Washi, which destroyed towns in the southern Philippines.

Congolese opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi called on Congolese security forces to stop following orders from President Joseph Kabila, who Tshisekedi claims lost the recent presidential election.

A Kenyan policeman was killed in a bomb blast believed to have been planned by the al-Shabaab militant group at the Somali refugee camp of Dadaab in Kenya.

Mexican police found ten bodies in a clandestine grave near the northern city of Durango, bringing the total number of bodies found in such graves, linked to the Sinaloa drug gang, to 287 this year.

Commentary of the Day

Victor Cha asserts that with Kim Jong-il’s death, China will have the most influence over North Korea’s future.

Madeline Albright reflects on Vaclav Havel’s role in expanding Europe after the fall of the Communist bloc.

Les Gelb interviews Vice President Joe Biden on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and China.

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