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The Myths of National Security Credibility

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

When it comes to framing issues of national debate, more often than not, what a journalist does not say or write is even more significant than what he does. It is, after all, the underlying assumptions of any given issue that determine whether one party or another will be perceived as more “credible” than the other. To take an obvious example, if economic leadership were determined to imply “giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy,” then clearly George W. Bush and the Republicans would be in the ideological driver’s seat. In such a case, it would not be necessary for the White House to employ a bevy of spin-based bait and switch tactics to cover up its miserable record on job growth and deficit creation.

While the conservatives have made great strides in recent times in convincing reporters to treat economic news as the exclusive concern of Wall Street and big business, their success in this regard is in no way comparable to what they have achieved in the area of “national security.” The very words are deemed to put Democrats on the defensive. This is not because of any objective standard to which analysts or reporters can point. Did President Nixon make Americans any safer with his illegal invasion of Cambodia and his willingness to aid in the overthrow of the legally elected government of Chile? Did President Reagan increase the nation’s security by selling arms to terrorists in Iran and Central America? Has President Bush done so by alienating most of the world with his misguided adventure in Iraq as he simultaneously ignores genuine threats to our homeland deriving from the vulnerability of our ports, our nuclear facilities, our chemical facilities, etc?

Fair-minded analysts would have to go back all the way back to President Johnson and the Tonkin Gulf resolution to find a Democrat who pursued a national security strategy that was simultaneously so secretive, misguided, and counter-productive to the nation’s national security interests. And yet it is Democrats, rather than Republicans, who are almost universally deemed in the context of mainstream debate to have a “credibility” problem with national security.

A perfect example of this assumption at work can be found in an otherwise thoughtful treatment of the topic by the journalist James Traub in a New York Times Magazine cover story last Sunday, entitled “The Things They Carry.” Traub respectfully quotes Condoleezza Rice, from an essay that appeared in Foreign Affairs. Below is the full quote as it then appeared:

"Yet many in the United States are (and have always been) uncomfortable with the notions of power politics, great powers, and power balances. In an extreme form, this discomfort leads to a reflexive appeal instead to notions of international law and norms, and the belief that the support of many states or even better, of institutions like the United Nations – is essential to the legitimate exercise of power. The 'national interest' is replaced with 'humanitarian interests' or the interests of 'the international community.' The belief that the United States is exercising power legitimately only when it is doing so on behalf of someone or something else was deeply rooted in Wilsonian thought, and there are strong echoes of it in the Clinton administration."

Traub’s article takes the above to represent a sober-minded statement of traditional foreign policy realism. In fact, when carefully scrutinized, Rice’s distinction crumbles to dust. As Slate.com’s Robert Wright pointed out in examining this very paragraph “in drawing this one-dimensional spectrum – national interest at one end and humanitarianism/multilateralism at the other — Rice is conflating two separate questions: 1) When should you act for humanitarian reasons as opposed to reasons of national self interest, and 2) When should you act multilaterally as opposed to unilaterally? “There is no necessary connection between the two,” he notes, “a fact illustrated by Rice's former boss, the first President Bush. He justified the Persian Gulf War in terms of strict national interest — oil, jobs — but he fought it under U.N. auspices and with the help of troops from other nations.”

In other words, Rice’s formulation tells us nothing about when to use force; when to do so unilaterally or multilaterally; and when to hold back. Nevermind. She is a Republican conservative and so she is deemed to be “credible” on national security regardless of whether she makes any sense.

Traub contrasts Rice’s alleged common sense with what we are to understand to be the Democrats’ namby-pamby foreign policy idealism, noting that the "discomfort" Rice professes to observe, "is, in turn, the residuum of Vietnam." Traub, moreover, endorses Rice’s accusation. "There's some truth to that claim," he writes. "One Democratic policy figure I spoke to said, 'If you listen to the Democrats in Iowa, you sometimes get the impression that the U.N. is going to save us from the situation.'"

Any number of inconsistencies can be found in the above, but for starters, because the "Democratic policy figure" is unnamed, it is impossible to determine whether he or she is someone whose judgment readers need take seriously. The phrase "you sometimes get the impression" is designed to distance the statement from the need for any evidence. Did any of the major Democratic candidates actually put forth a policy that can accurate be described in these terms? No, but so what? An anonymously quoted individual claims to have an "impression" and that’s good enough.

Traub continues in this regard, explaining, for instance, that even though "it remains a matter of debate whether Reagan did, in fact, spend the Soviets into the ground," and many scholars of the late Soviet Union would vehemently disagree, "the G.O.P. emerged from that era as the party of resolution, the Democrats emerged as the party of fecklessness – a status brought home in the most mortifying possible manner when Michael Dukakis, their nominee in 1988, posed in a tank wearing a tanker's helmet and was compared to Rocky the Flying Squirrel."

Yes, we all know it happens all the time in the purposefully inane world of cable TV, talk radio and much of what passes for debate in the contemporary punditocracy, but how is it possible, in a serious analysis of which party is thought to be more credible on the issue of national security, that a 15-year-old photograph of Michael Dukakis could be made to represent the Democrats’ position? Franklin D. Roosevelt was paralyzed with polio and would have looked even more ridiculous trying to fit into a tank. Does that prove anything? More seriously, what of the war in Kosovo? What of the party’s commitment to curb global warming? What of the distinguished records of service in the area of foreign policy by people like What of the distinguished records of service in the area of foreign policy by people such as Madeline Albright, Sandy Berger, Joe Biden, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Warren Christopher, Wesley Clark, Chris Dodd, Richard Holbrook, Bob Kerrey, Anthony Lake and William Perry. What about the body of foreign policy experts among non-neocon scholars who almost unanimously endorse the Democrats’ multilateralist vision over that of the Bush administration’s unstable combination of isolationism and imperialism? What, in other words, about questions of substance?

Citing the neoconservative analyst Robert Kagan, Traub concludes, “Europeans do not feel threatened by terrorism in the same way, or to the same degree, as Americans do; consensus-dependent institutions like NATO or the Security Council are thus likely to fail us in the clutch.” But again, where is the evidence for this contention? Is it not just as likely that Europeans take a different attitude toward terrorism than that which Traub attributes to Americans because they have more experience dealing with it on their own soil? But as Spanish journalist Miguel Angel Aguilar, who helped found El País and now runs the Association for European Journalists in Madrid, explained to me in an interview, Europeans have learned that terrorists can be an enemy "against which sheer military might is not going to help you." Spain, he notes, has fought a home-grown terrorist movement for 30 years. "Using the army turned out to be a disaster," Aguilar observes. "We were trying to kill mosquitoes with bombs. Innocents were killed and democracy suffered and we were no safer."

To turn Traub’s formulation on its (proper) head, is it not the Bush administration’s impatience with a working multilateral solution to the problem of containing Iraq that "failed" America in the clutch? Are we not paying for that failure every day not only with hundreds of billions of dollars (and few genuine allies) but also with the lives of hundreds of brave men and women? Bush claimed to be protecting the nation from "terrorism" but launched a war against a nation that, according to his own CIA, played no role in any anti-American terrorism for more than a decade. In the meantime, we are, as I write this, on Orange alert and Osama bin Laden — the man who launched these horrific attacks – continues to mock us with his reconstituted minions. And yet even in the media’s most thoughtful and prestigious publications, reporters insist that it is the Democrats, rather than Bush, who must demonstrate their "credibility" on matters of national security.

The mind reels as the heart sinks…

“Think Again” is a weekly column designed to examine the framing of key issues in the mainstream media. Senior Fellow Eric Alterman is the editor and overseer of this column, but only sometimes its author. Frequently it will be written and researched by a team of media watchers, who will be credited or not, as they prefer.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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Eric Alterman

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