Osama bin Laden and the Death of Democratic Weakness

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For over half a century, Democrats have been perceived as weak on national security and foreign policy, leading them to disastrous policies. Will the killing of bin Laden put that to rest once and for all?

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David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

In May 2004, a senior Bush Administration official was asked by the Wall Street Journal about the challenges facing John Kerry as he sought to address national security issues, and in particular the war in Iraq, in his campaign for the White House. "It's never stopped being 1968" for Democrats, the official said.

There was no need to spell out what "1968" meant. It was shorthand for the caricature of Democratic "weakness" and anti-military attitudes, dating from the party's opposition to the war in Vietnam, that has become the prism by which the Democrats are viewed on national security issues -- and by which the party often views itself. The challenge for Kerry wasn't Iraq; it was in battling this negative perception of Democrats as weak and indecisive on national security and foreign policy. As time would tell, it became one of the proximate causes of his defeat that November.

For more than four decades the perception of Democratic "weakness" on foreign policy and national security has been one of the most dominant and distorting political stereotypes in modern American politics -- affecting not only how voters perceive Democrats, but also how the party approaches these issues. It has become a knee jerk political mindset that shapes the attitudes, policy preferences and even career choices of progressive foreign policy and national security analysts. Perceived political vulnerability about the party's ability to keep America safe and strong has led Democrats, time and time again, to engineer their national security policies around looking tough rather than necessarily doing what they believe is best for the country. The politics of vulnerability don't just influence policy -- often, they trump it altogether.

But on Sunday, May 1, that meme may have finally died.

With the killing of bin Laden, Democrats have, for the first time in more than four decades, the chance to retire the notion that they are not tough enough to protect America from external danger. Beyond that immediate political function, it provides Democrats with the opportunity to chart a new course for American foreign policy. The question now is whether they will take advantage of this previously unbeknown political space.

Once the 2006 and 2008 elections were over, Democrats returned to the politics of overcompensation

The challenge for Democrats is that the weakness stereotype has been around longer than most progressives have been alive, dating back six decades to the "Who Lost China" debate of the 1950s, after Nationalist China fell to the Communists in 1949 and the Truman Administration was held responsible. Both consciously and subconsciously, that debate has shaped Democratic national security policy ever since.

With China's move into the "red" orbit, Democrats found themselves on the defensive -- a process that only gathered momentum with the subsequent McCarthy witchhunts, which intimated that the government was infiltrated by fellow travelers. To avoid the stigma of insufficient rigor on combating the Soviet threat, Democrats adopted as hardline an anti-Communist stance as Republicans. Their build-up and escalation in Vietnam in the early to mid-60s -- and reluctance to change course even after the war began going badly -- was driven, in part, by fear that a political victory for communism in Southeast Asia would re-engage the "who lost" debate at home and expose Democrats to potentially severe political harm.

After the 1968 election, Democrats began articulating a new approach to foreign policy that rejected the bipartisan anti-Communist consensus and focused instead on non-military elements of foreign policy -- but they paid a huge political price for doing so. Democrat George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, which called for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for draft resisters, and a huge cut in defense spending, led to accusations that he was "an apostle of appeasement." And it brought a new description for Democrats on foreign policy "McGovernite" -- a euphemism for fecklessness and lack of patriotic rigor that hung around the party's neck like an albatross.

In 1984, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick strode on stage at the Republican National Convention and lambasted Democrats as a party of "retreat and decline" that always "blamed America first." The former charge resonated with voters, particularly since the last Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, had presided over the disastrous Iranian hostage crisis. Four years later, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis tried to deflect this issue by riding around in a tank -- a stunt that further entrenched the notion Democrats simply weren't serious on defense issues.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, global issues diminished in political importance and the party saw a chance to return to their preferred focus on domestic policy. But while President Clinton's foreign policy could hardly be considered unsuccessful, Democrats failed to chart a new doctrine or approach to national security, happy instead to look, act, and talk just a bit less martially and exceptionalist than Republicans. Heather Hurlburt, head of the National Security Network, a progressive foreign policy advocacy group of which I am a board member, reflected, "Clinton adopted a host of positions that were once pushed by internationalist Republicans, like re-balancing military and non-military tools, re-focusing on economic issues, and rebuilding the global U.S. brand. Yet so persistent is the notion of Democratic weakness that these approaches to strengthening U.S. national security became political weapons used against the party."

After September 11th, Democrats fell back on old instincts. Democrats put aside their misgivings about the war on terrorism and gave President Bush the political support he demanded, voting overwhelmingly to authorize him to go to war against Iraq.

This is where the weakness stereotype may do the most damage to Democrats -- in an effort to appear as "tough" as Republicans, they often embrace national security strategies that are not only the wrong policy approach, but actually provide minimal political benefit. The Democratic politician who benefited most from his position on the Iraq War has been then-Senator Barack Obama; and he wasn't a supporter. In both the 2006 and 2008 elections, anti-war positions not only didn't harm Democratic candidates -- it benefited them. Despite the resonance of the weakness stereotype among voters, Democrats have generally overemphasized its importance, ignoring evidence that voters will occasionally respond to a choice on national security, rather than an echo.

Once the 2006 and 2008 elections were over, Democrats returned to the politics of overcompensation. Obama's campaign pledge to increase attention to the war in Afghanistan (driven in part by political necessity -- he had to prove he was "tough" despite opposing the Iraq war) led to a doubling of U.S. troop levels, even though behind-the-scenes accounts suggest the President harbored serious misgivings about what amounted to a policy of nation-building in the Hindu Kush. Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta, quoted in Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, captured the assumptions of many a Democrat about the internal White House debate regarding escalation in Afghanistan, "No Democratic President can go against military advice, especially if he asked for it." Just do as they say, was his advice.

On the closing of Gitmo and other civil liberties-related issues, Republican complaints -- and Congressional Democratic wavering -- have quickly forced the White House to abandon its efforts. Whether it was the appointment of military officers and Republicans to top national security positions, fear of public battles with the Pentagon, or a general reluctance to chart a new foreign policy course, the White House's approach to national security has been deeply shaped by the stereotype of Democratic weakness.

But with the death of bin Laden, a Democratic President no longer has to be as concerned with charges of fecklessness or indecisiveness in keeping Americans safe. This presents Democrats with the rarest of opportunities -- to not only reverse a debilitating political stereotype, but to chart a new path altogether.

On a practical level, the bin Laden killing gives Obama the chance to minimize the war on terror narrative that has come to define U.S. foreign policy, in which the perceived threat -- and, thus, the response -- are both far greater than the actual threat. It also provides the opportunity to begin a faster troop drawdown from Afghanistan, a war predicated on combating an enemy that, as bin Laden's capture in Abottabad once again shows, largely finds its home in Pakistan.

The real opportunity, however, is long-term. The death of bin Laden provides Democrats political cover to advance a new conception of the national interest, one that matches up more closely with policies that progressives have long sought but have lacked the political muscle to implement. This doesn't mean a knee-jerk anti-militarism or a retreat to isolationism, but instead focusing on foreign policy opportunities rather than merely responding to hyped-up external threats. This could mean de-emphasizing of the role of the military and embracing non-military approaches to foreign policy challenges; greater political and financial support for U.S. civilian diplomatic and development agencies; a re-examination of America's international force posture; and, in general, a foreign policy characterized less by a hair trigger and more by restraint.

The death of bin Laden does more than give Obama a political chit to cash in during his re-election campaign. It gives him the opportunity to do what he promised on the campaign trail in 2008: to not just end the war in Iraq, but "end the mindset that got us into war in the first place." As Obama noted at the time, "That's the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next president of the United States. That's what I intend to provide." The death of bin Laden gives him the chance to prove it.

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Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He is currently writing a book on the 1968 presidential election. 

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