Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Debunking The Defense Myth Part I

One of the most persistent, yet misleading, narratives perpetuated with great skill over the past 30-plus years is the story that Republicans and conservatives are more adept in the realms of national security and foreign policy than their Democratic counterparts. These sentiments have been reflexively echoed in the mainstream media, and throughout the population in general, so frequently that this myth has risen to the level of conventional wisdom. As a testament to the intransigence of this storyline, almost every Republican presidential candidate over this period has enjoyed a decisive advantage over their Democratic adversary in polls focusing on the question of national security (Bush being the latest, although perhaps least deserving, to receive this boon).

But as with many political narratives, the facts, both historical and current, belie the broad conclusions and sweeping generalizations. Historically speaking, the 20th Century provides a mixed bag of evidence.

First, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was an undeniable success in the areas of national security and foreign policy. He successfully commanded the military during World War II, oversaw the massive conversion of American industrial might to the service of military production, inspired a nation and maintained morale through the eloquence of his weekly oratorical dliveries, and in the end vanquished Naziism, the single biggest and most threatening foreign opponent that America has faced on the battlefield in it's history.

So how did the legacy of FDR become lost in the historical memory hole? The roots of the problem probably begin with the Cold War, but again the history diverges from the narrative. Truman, another Democratic president, did not hesitate to involve American forces on the Korean peninsula in defense of the South when the Communist North invaded in 1950. Nor was Eisenhower, a Republican, able to garner anything better than a stalemate in 1953, more than a year after he took office.

Then there is Kennedy, a Democrat, who again was willing to employ the U.S. military in Vietnam in order to counter a growing Communist movement. Similarly, Kennedy was steely in his resolve, and ultimately prevailed over Khrushchev, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, probably the moment in history when the two superpowers were closest to the brink of mutual nuclear annihilation. Some view his unwillingness to provide air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion as weakness on the part of Kennedy, but granting that conclusion for the sake of argument, this flap still at worst only slightly tarnishes the "tough" stances he took in other areas.

Next comes Johnson, a staunch Texas liberal, who oversaw a profound escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Not exactly true to the modern misinformed stereotype of a "liberal," Johnson sacrificed the well being of his bold Great Society program by diverting the budgetary largesse into the war effort.

Taking over for Johnson is Nixon, a Republican, who ironically campaigned on the message of "peace with dignity" which was a euphemism for pulling out the troops, or as Bush might term it, cutting and running. Despite his campaign pledge, Nixon remained entrenched in his support for the policies of military involvement in Vietnam, famously stepping up the bombing campaigns in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, though to little avail. Nixon was no more successful at pulling off a victory in Vietnam than his Democratic predecessors.

In fact, there is ample
evidence that Nixon delayed the pullout of American troops for political purposes, in order to win the 1972 election. As evidenced by recently released tapes, just three months before the election, Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger discussed the fact that despite a massive bombing campaign during the spring and summer, in Nixon's words, "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway."

With this in mind, Nixon went on, "We also have to realize, Henry, that winning an election is terribly important." And so he and Kissinger devised a plan to stall the conclusion of the Paris peace talks, and the subsequent fall of Saigon, until after the election. During this interim period termed the "decent interval" by Kissinger, thousands of American GI's lost their lives for a fait accompli. Not exactly supporting the troops, nor an image of strength in the arena of national security.

After Nixon came Ford and Carter, both relatively unremarkable in terms of foreign policy initiatives, although Carter had the misfortune of presiding over the Iranian hostage crisis, a situation which was not handled well by the Democratic president and which left a lasting stain on his reputation. Due to this, and other factors, the Carter administration, and the transition to Reagan, probably marked the turning point in the perception war between the Democrats and the Republicans. Reagan was sworn into office concurrent with the serendipitously timed release of the hostages.

His presidency was marked by strong rhetoric aimed at the Soviet Union and a concerted effort to support insurgencies around the globe that were in conflict with Communist and Socialist regimes. This led to a checkered tally of questionable success and frequent atrocities. Reagan famously backed the Contras and the governments of
Guatemala El Salvador and Haiti who employed brutal death squads that terrorized and murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians, including American Catholic clergy raped and murdered in El Salvador.

Billmon has this to add regarding Reagan and the Muslim world:

"The legacy of Reagan's policies in the Middle East, meanwhile, are still being paid for - in blood. The cynical promotion of [Osama Bin Laden and] Islamic fundamentalism as a weapon against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the alliance of convenience with Saddam Hussein against Iran [which included sending Hussein biological, chemical and conventional weapons, money and intelligence], the forging of a new 'strategic relationship' with Israel, the corrupt dealings with the House of Saud, and (perhaps most ironic, given Reagan's tough guy image) the weakness and indecision of his disastrous intervention in Beruit - all of these helped set the stage for what the neocons now like to call World War IV, and badly weakened the geopolitical ability of the United States to wage that war.
In reality, Reagan did confront Communism in a pro-active and determined fashion, and this strategy did succeed in some areas, but this has unfortunately given rise to the familiar refrain that Reagan defeated Communism. The argument that he toppled Communism is myopic at best, and disingenuous at worst. This argument ignores the decades of conflict and Cold War confrontation conducted by past presidents, Republican and Democrat alike. Reagan did not come to office in a Cold War vacuum, and without a historical context.

Furthermore, there were fundamental structural flaws in the political and economic models of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe. Communism in these regions was collapsing under its own ponderous weight and inefficient machinations. It is possible, if not probable, that Reagan hastened its demise through the escalation of the arms race and the incumbent financial strains this put on the Soviet model, but this greatly underestimates the importance of the role that Mikhail Gorbachev played in the process.

Without Gorbachev's historic break from decades of hard line tradition in promoting glasnost and perestroika, the Communist leadership in the U.S.S.R could have maintained its grip on power for many more years. In a sense, Reagan benefited from good timing, and the fortuitous emergence of a tango partner in the Kremlin. Furthermore, his successful rapprochement with Gorbachev, and the numerous treaties and detente that flowed from this relationship, marked a decidedly softer approach, something akin to the approach ascribed to the Democrats.

Still, the myth coalesced in the Reagan years. Democrats were not to be trusted in foreign policy and national security. Republicans were the only group tough enough to stand up to foreign threats. Disregard the 20th Century and the successes and failures in both Republican and Democratic regimes. It is no longer a question of individual talents, but of party affiliation. Nevermind that Bush Sr. didn't "finish the job" in Iraq (although in hindsight, when he wrote in 1998 in Time Magazine that invading Iraq would be a mistake because we would alienate most of our allies around the world and we would then inherit an enormous security mess in trying to run Iraq as a country, he appears to display uncanny prescience). And forget that it was Bush Sr. who got us involved in the muddled mess of Somalia. Also, ignore the fact that Clinton waged the highly successful intervention in Kosovo to prevent ongoing ethnic cleansing, over the vocal opposition of Republicans (although his inaction in Rwanda was inexcusable and a tragic oversight of unthinkable dimensions, it is worth pointing out that the GOP wasn't clamoring for action either).

None of the history matters much in the defiantly ahistorical realm of public opinion. Repeat a narrative enough times, and it becomes perception, which in political terms is reality. That is why when the one term governor from Texas, George W. Bush, ran for president in 2000, despite an absolute dearth of foreign policy experience, he was granted the benefit of the doubt on the issue of national security because he was, after all, a Republican, and thus innately gifted in crafting foreign policy and national security policy. History will not look kindly on this judgment, but will anyone pay attention to something as trivial as history?

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