Jay Reding.com

Passing Blame To The Wrong Party

Daniel Larison, of the paleo-con American Conservative takes a look at the woes of the GOP and the conservative movement and puts the blame on national-security conservatives.

It wasn’t that the Bush Administration went on an orgy of spending that made a mockery of conservative principles, or that social conservatives had a message that tended to alienate rather than include, it’s that the the strong national security message of the GOP caused them to lose:

Like their short-sighted cheerleading for a “surge” in Iraq, which failed on its own terms, and their subsequent carping this year that the Pentagon budget increase is too small, the mainstream right’s apologies for torture are not only morally bankrupt but also divorced from the reality of the intelligence, or lack thereof, these methods provided. Much as liberals needed their internal critics to challenge the welfare status quo over the last three decades, conservatism desperately needs similar internal dissent concerning the warfare state. But there is almost none.

One reason for the lack of dissent and accountability is that the majority of the GOP was deeply implicated in supporting and defending the war in Iraq, the signature failure of national security conservatives. To a large extent, the party has defined itself around the ideological fictions used to justify and continue the war long after the country had turned against it. This process was aided by the disappearance of antiwar Republicans in Congress. Never numerous in the first place, most have been replaced by Democrats during the past two cycles.

Now, this argument is wrong, but it isn’t fundamentally wrong. It is wrong on the facts. The surge did work, it worked better than had been expected, and as a testament to how well it worked, the Obama Administration has not disavowed it. President Obama, were the Iraq issue as toxic as it is claimed, could have withdrawn all U.S. troops ASAP. Instead, Obama’s war strategy is not that much different than what a President McCain’s strategy would have been—a gradual and conditional withdrawal over the next year to two years. Moreover, the Obama Administration is hardly rejecting the idea of a hawkish foreign policy. During the debates, Obama needled McCain about getting bin Laden. Hardly the act of someone who wants to push for a more restrained war. Obama has been sending more drones into Pakistan, even though such actions may be dangerous. Rather than de-escalation, Obama plans to put more troops into Afghanistan and has signaled a muscular U.S. foreign policy.

The truth of the matter is, doves don’t win elections in the U.S. Muscular foreign policy is widely accepted by both political parties in the United States. The idea that the GOP lost because they embraced “hegemony” is something only someone inside the intellectual bubble of academia could take seriously.

Moreover, Larison divides the GOP into three wings: social, fiscal, and national security conservatives. The reality is that both social and fiscal conservatives also tend to be national security conservatives. There isn’t a separate wing of conservatives that believe in a strong national defense but not social issues or fiscal ones. Rather, both socially-minded and fiscally-minded conservatives tend to be interested in national security issues. That’s why it’s not that surprising that Evangelicals tend to be supportive of “torture” against suspected terrorists—there is no hard and fast line between social conservatives and national security conservatives. The Reagan coalition was largely built around national security issues, and a strong national defense has been one of the common issues shared by a vast majority of Republicans and conservatives.

There is, however, an element of truth here as well. The GOP lost in large part due to the war in Iraq, a war that was never convincingly explained by the President and suffered from poor management from 2003–07. The “surge” was the product of the Administration finally listening to the people fighting the war rather than dictating from the top down. President Bush never convincingly explained why we were in Iraq so long and why the sacrifice of American blood and treasure was worth it. There was truth in the adage that we were “fighting them over there rather than over here,” but that logic was never followed through.

The GOP has many problems, but “interventionist” foreign policy is not one of them. The Obama Administration continues to play lip service to the idea of a more “humble” foreign policy while still engaging in interventions abroad. Isolationism has not played a major role in U.S. politics since the end of World War II, and for good reason. America’s superpower status demands world leadership, and we can’t have one without the other. If the GOP becomes a policy that abrogates its positions on a muscular U.S. foreign policy, they will lose. While Iraq hurt the GOP in 2006 and 2008, the GOP’s foreign policy positions helped re-elect President Bush in 2004 when Kerry’s weakness on national security proved to be fatal.

The real lesson here is that if you’re going to fight a war, fight it well and keep the American people fully engaged in the conflict. To argue that the lesson conservatives should learn from the last election cycles is to abandon a deeply-held and popular principle of conservatism and embrace a discredited and dangerous isolationism is to learn exactly the wrong lesson.

3 responses to “Passing Blame To The Wrong Party”

  1. Mark says:

    “The surge did work, it worked better than had been expected, and as a testament to how well it worked, the Obama Administration has not disavowed it.”

    True, the surge worked. Unfortunately, the war failed, rendering the surge irrelevant in the court of public opinion. If the team trailing 10-0 rallies for the five runs in the bottom of the ninth, they still don’t get a victory. Until Iraq functions in the way the Bush administration assured us it would back in 2003, you will be unable to convince people that invading Iraq was sound policy.

    “The truth of the matter is, doves don’t win elections in the U.S”

    The dovish position has won the last two election cycles, and quite decisively at that.

    “The reality is that both social and fiscal conservatives also tend to be national security conservatives.”

    That statement seems rather arbitrary as well. I know alot of “America First” conservatives…probably more AF Republicans than Democrats for that matter. And I don’t believe Reagan’s coalition would have acquiesced simply based on a “let’s take down the Commies” message. He needed his “government is the problem not the solution” meme to cross the finish line, and was lucky enough to find an accommodating climate for that message in 1980.

    “The GOP has many problems, but “interventionist” foreign policy is not one of them.”

    Well, it isn’t anymore. They have no political power with which they can do any more intervening.

  2. Mark says:

    “The “torture” issue will never have legs because the average American doesn’t share the sense of moral outrage that some have over that issue. In war, bad things happen. People get killed. Killing is a moral wrong, yet it is part of the nature of warfare.”

    While your analysis is probably right in terms of popular opinion, the common denominator among those apathetic towards torture policy is never having served themselves. When we’re a country whose familiarity with torture policy and theory is limited to what we’ve seen on “24”, then it’s impossible to expect serious critical analysis on the topic. Those who have served almost unilaterally disavow the Bush administration tactics. I respect their opinion more than Cheney’s or the average shlub who approves of torture because “it worked for Jack Bauer”.

  3. Jay Reding says:

    True, the surge worked. Unfortunately, the war failed, rendering the surge irrelevant in the court of public opinion. If the team trailing 10-0 rallies for the five runs in the bottom of the ninth, they still don’t get a victory. Until Iraq functions in the way the Bush administration assured us it would back in 2003, you will be unable to convince people that invading Iraq was sound policy.

    Iraq is a functioning nascent democracy, the situation there is as good as it’s likely to get for a country in it’s position. War is not a game of baseball, and it is irrelevant what American public opinion is at this point. The Hussein regime is gone and will never return. Saddam Hussein himself was tried and executed by an Iraqi court. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is basically destroyed. The Mahdi Army is no longer a major threat. Violence in Iraq is down dramatically, life for most Iraqis is calm, and a popularly-elected democratic government is in power.

    The Obama Administration is doing essentially the same thing that McCain would have done. The war has been largely won, and the Iraqis are taking control of their own country. The critics of the surge were wrong. Trying to spin the facts doesn’t change them.

    The dovish position has won the last two election cycles, and quite decisively at that.

    Except the Democrats were hardly doves. Obama has continued nearly all of the Bush Administration’s war policies. The Democrats won in 2006 and 2008 on the platform of fighting the war in what they argued was a smarter way rather than not fighting at all.

    While your analysis is probably right in terms of popular opinion, the common denominator among those apathetic towards torture policy is never having served themselves. When we’re a country whose familiarity with torture policy and theory is limited to what we’ve seen on “24″, then it’s impossible to expect serious critical analysis on the topic. Those who have served almost unilaterally disavow the Bush administration tactics. I respect their opinion more than Cheney’s or the average shlub who approves of torture because “it worked for Jack Bauer”.

    I’ve talked with people who have decades of experience in military intelligence who are unequivocal that these techniques do work. They are used because they produce usable intelligence that saves lives.