Democracy Arsenal

« A Brief Response... | Main | We Win: Then What? »

November 06, 2006

Debating How to Appear "Strong"
Posted by Marc Grinberg

I argued earlier that part of the liberal security problem is the belief that liberals won't do what needs to be done to keep America safe (aka we are not seen as "strong").  So how do we fix this?  Before we move forward on this, we must answer a fundamental question, which Shadi raises here: what does it mean to be "strong"? 

I hope that my fellow bloggers will join us in answering this challenging question. 

It is important to begin with the understanding that "strength" is a perception issue, not a policy one.  Whether or not a policy makes our country stronger in the long run is (mostly) irrelevant to how it is viewed by the public.  It is also important to note that the public assesses "strength" mostly in reference to grand strategies or approaches to national security, not in specific policies.  Strategists and politicians should not get caught up on debating whether a particular policy choice will be seen as "strong."  What is important is that our overall strategy is perceived as "strong."

The question for us to discuss here is whether liberals can approach national security in a way that will be perceived as "strong," without simply copying conservatives?  And if so, how?

I believe that we can be perceived as "strong" and as liberal at the same time.  The perceived strength of a policy strategy, it seems, has more to do with the "ways" and "means" that are made available for use than with the specific details of the strategy or individual policies.  By this I mean that a national security approach will be perceived as "strong" if it includes an explicit willingness to use all the reasonable tools at our disposal (means) and an explicit willingness to act aggressively (don't read: militarily) in pursuit of our ends (ways).

What is most important here are the words "explicit" and "willingness."  Explicit means that liberals must make it absolutely clear (and believable) to the American public that every reasonable option is always on the table (yes, there can be exceptions when the act of articulating that all options are on the table is bad policy in itself).  Willingness implies that each tool does not actually need to be used in every instance, it just needs to be realistically considered as an option.

I've presented here some preliminary ideas, what does everyone else think?

(This post has been updated slightly in order to clarify several points.  I thank Dan Kervick for his comments.)


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Debating How to Appear "Strong":


"In this world, there is nothing softer or thinner than water. But to compel the hard and unyielding, it has no equal. That the weak overcomes the strong, that the hard gives way to the gentle -- this everyone knows. Yet no one asks accordingly."--Lao-Tse

In other words it's the wrong debate. What are our goals and how do we best achieve them? --that's what we should be discussing/debating. Not by being strong but by being wise.

Lao-tse was Chinese, so let's look at how the Chinese achieve success. We have conducted large-scale military exercises off their coast. We keep them from unifying their country after a civil war. Our President highly insulted theirs on his recent visit to the U.S.--it wasn't even called a state visit. Does China threaten us or anyone with nuclear attack? Do they invade other countries? No. They bend like bamboo. They say that they have no desire to be a primary world power. Like Lao-Tse's water they flow and overcome. Right now they own the US economically and they are moving into Africa and Latin America big-time, not with strength but with investment and assistance. They are courting friends among the nations of the world, and it's not difficult at all since most of the world's people now revile us. We need to learn and to examine our assumptions. We should not accept the "war on terror" as a given--it is a hoax designed to entrap us. "Everyone knows, yet no one asks."

Marc, you say:

By this I mean that a national security approach will be perceived as "strong" if it includes an explicit willingness to use all the tools at our disposal (means) and an explicit willingness to act aggressively (don't read: militarily) in pursuit of our ends (ways).

It is hard to interpret this statement in any way in which it comes out looking like the product of a sober mind. For example, one of our currently popular national ends is to limit illegal immigration from Mexico. One of the tools at our disposal is our nuclear arsenal. So should we Democrats (or "liberals" or whatever) express an explicit willingness to nuke Mexico in order to limit illegal immigration? Should we leave that "option" on the table? Well of course not. Yet your broad and imprecise statement seems to entail that conclusion. But I see that after making this initial bold statement, you then go on to take it back:

What is most important here are the words "explicit" and "willingness." Explicit means that liberals must make it absolutely clear (and believable) to the American public that every option is always on the table (yes, there can be exceptions for when doing this is bad policy).

Ah, I see. It all comes down to the bad policy test. We should make it clear to Americans that in the pursuit of American ends every option is on the table, except in those cases in which it would be bad policy to pursue that option - in which case that option should not be on the table.

So what it all comes down to is that Democrats must make it absolutely clear that they will follow good policies and avoid bad policies. A bit of a truism, don't you think? And if you interview 10 randomly chosen Americans to get their views on a broad assortment of policies, you are probably going to get 10 different answers on which of the proposed policies are good and which are bad.

You also say:

Whether or not a policy makes our country stronger in the long run is (mostly) irrelevant to how it is viewed by the public. It is also important to note that the public assesses "strength" mostly in reference to grand strategies or approaches to national security, not in specific policies.

"Mostly irrelevant"? Really?! Are the public's powers of discernment really so weak that most of them are incapable, most of the time, of distinguishing real strength from the mere semblance of strength? Might I suggest that this kind of contemptful attitude toward the judgment of ordinary Americans is part of what is to blame for rampant public distrust of political elites?

I also don't think most of the public thinks about national security in terms of "grand strategies". That is a term I have rarely heard used outside of academic contexts, and I don't think most Americans evaluate proposals in light of a long term national strategy. But I suspect you are right that most people probably don't evaluate policies on a wonkish policy-by-policy basis either. My sense is that the fouindation of their jusdgement - particularly in the area of foreign policy, where most of us have very limited knowledge and expertise - rests on their assessment of character of the people defending the policies.

I don't believe that there is as much of a gap as you seem to think between being strong and being perceived as strong. Real strength tends to shine through artifice, at least over time. The public used to view George Bush as a strong man. But they seem to have arrived finally at a more accurate perception of him as a man with only a strong will - but a weak mind and a fearful heart. It did take a while, and I do accept that the 9/11 trauma caused a lot of Americans to "freak out" and lose their bearings in separating real national strength from violent displays of force and paranoid suspicions. But I continue to believe that most of the time their collective judgment about what makes America strong is actually pretty good.

Strength is knowing who you are and what you believe, and defending your position with conviction, courage and powerful arguments. Such people know themselves, and thus know what they want to do in a crisis. And their self-confidence inspires confidence in others and makes them leaders. Strength is not built upon an obsession with how one is perceived by others, and a drive to manage those perceptions. The latter trait instead characterizes the temperament of the callow adolescent stuck in a prolonged identity crisis.

Republicans have consistently employed the "flip-flop" or "waffle" accusation against Democrats in recent years. That is due to the fact that the public perceives Democratic leaders, with some justice, as trading in poll-driven, focus group-tested, operative-managed exercises in perception management. The way to overcome perceptionthis is not to try harder to manage perceptions. It is to stop worrying so much about perceptions, stop trying so hard to control and manage what others think, and to focus more on articulating and defending one's deepest convictions.

Dan - You're absolutely right on your first two points. I failed to modify "tools at our disposal" with the word "reasonable" - which you right suggest I should have done. On the second point, my phrase was obviously not as clear as I had intended to be. What I meant to say was that exceptions can be made when the act of articulating that all policy options are on the table is bad policy in itself.

If you don't mind, I will update my post to make my intentions more clear, noting your critique as responsible for the changes.

The question for us to discuss here is whether liberals can approach national security in a way that will be perceived as "strong," without simply copying conservatives? And if so, how?

Marc, when I look at what you want -- the perception of strength -- I believe that what will matter is not grand strategy. When you try to clarify a grand strategy, the people you want to reach will tune out. They aren't interested in grand strategy. They want to see action, not talk.

So what would work better would be to find a series of small actions to take, that don't necessarily involve any strategy at all. Maybe it should be about one every three months. They would be roughly on a Delta-force scale.

Maybe for one of them, we find a group of missionaries in trouble in paraguay, and we rescue them. Next time maybe we rescue somebody in lebanon. We could set up a mission where all the forward guys are black, and rescue some maerican citizens who happen to be black from mali. Or uganda.

Each time it should come as a surprise. We don't publicise the victims until after they're rescued. If things go wrong and the victim gets killed or something, we don't publicise it at all. No ideology required, the enemy in each case can be some third-world hellhole that would vote against us in the UN anyway, or it can be a terrorist group *against* the third-world hellhole government, or whatever. Small operations that would be very unlikely to expand into actual wars. Things that small-operation buffs can spend months discussing the details of. Ideally extremely varied missions.

The result is the government looks like it's strong and tough, completely independent of policies, strategies, doubletalk, or perception management. Each new TV docudrama that reconstructs how it happened will reassure americans that the government is on the ball, keeping america strong.

And not only do we not *have* to talk about grand strategies, we're *better off* not talking about strategy. People who talk about strategy are policy wonks. People who rescue missionaries are heroes.

About actual national security, probably the best approach is to heavily publicise a few of the tens-of-billions-of-dollars Republican DHS boondoggles. Probably about 6 of those would be enough, more than that and the public will tune it out. Announce that we're trying to clean up the mess and get a responsible national security policy going, and every time there's a terrorist incident in the USA blame it on the GOP. That should work for 3 years or so, and by that time maybe we could actually get something workable in place.

Also, we could publicise successes. Stop a terrorist action before it really gets started, and capture only some low-level dupes who weren't central to it. We know who the big shots are but we didn't get them, they didn't get close enough. Then later we can announce the names and the name of the country they died in -- chad maybe, or uzbekistan, or paraguay again. We announce the names of the dead terrorist leaders after they're dead and for national security reasons we give very few details -- so few that nobody can trace whether the people involved actually ever existed.

And it's silly to restrict it to arab or muslim groups. (Though we'd have to be careful who else to publicise.) There could be a pan-african group that wants to unite all of africa under one government, that attacks the USA to unify africa. The trouble with that one is that people might actually want to join it. There could be a south korean group that attacks america to punish us for supporting the south korean government. A samurai group that attacks america to bring japan back to military greatness. A nutsy christian group that attacks america because we are the Beast. A mazatec group that attacks the USA for supporting the mexican government. Our current government makes up only arab attacks because they want to attack arabs, but there's no reason for a liberal government to be restricted to that. It only takes a few hundred members, some money, and a grievance to make a terrorist attack. We could be equal-opportunity defenders and foil terrorist attacks from all comers, not just arabs. And every publicised success will dilute the effect if there's one that succeeds. I can't truly advocate making up fake terrorist organisations so we can get the PR benefits from stopping their attacks and from killing the leaders, but it would be one of the best ways to meet your goal of making us look strong. And our political enemies at DHS do it, should we be more principled?

I'm sorry to appear so cynical. But the very way you set up the question provokes that response. I think any attempt to deal with this matter has to be entirely private, not put on a public blog. Any reasonable discussion of the issue could be quoted by GOP agents and trumpeted to the media with their spin on it. The very attempt to have this conversation is self-defeating. Every person who participates in such a discussion discredits himself, he becomes unemployable in any policy position because he's gone on record as wanting to fool the public. Any public discussion of these issues would have to be done with so many layers of circumlocution and wink-wink-nudge-nudge you-know-what-I-mean that it would be very hard to tell what the participants meant. I'm not actually advocating having the discussion in private either. Just -- do it. Rescue the hostages from third-world hellholes. Rescue the missionaries. Rescue the tourists. Not only does it make us look strong but the rescued tourists are a positive good in themselves.

China as a threat to the US is overblown and is currently used to justify many Pentagon programs. That said there is the small matter of the invasion and occupation of Tibet, invasion of Vietnam in 1976, the current air and naval provocations they have radically increased vis a vis Japan, and the attempted browbeating of the democratic country of Taiwan.

On that last point while it might be the position of some that Taiwan is simply part of China and we are interfering with the results of the 1940's Civil War (it is 2006 now) in fact the native people of Taiwan were the oppressed minority when Chang and the Nationalists came ashore in the 1940's. Today, however, it is the native taiwanese reasserting themselves politically.

That aside even if it were an island of all ethnic chinese it would be our duty to support the democratic aspirations of an independent nation and people, or did I miss the bit about the US supporting freedom and democracy at least from time to time? Sorry we can't solve the brutal political repression going on in China today but there is no need to let it spread to Taiwan.

In other words to simply state we prevented them from unifying their country is not only simplistic and devoid of context but it's 60 years ago. What is the point unless as a justification to let them unify now? Taiwan today can still probably stop an invasion without our help anyway. The issue is decades from now when China completes it's air and naval expansion programs, in other words when they really can beat Taiwan.

RF online is a very good game. Through buying rf gold, I find fun in it. I am so glad that I can earn a lot of rf online gold. Gaia online cater to the taste of young people. With rf money, you can get everything you want in this game. So I like to buy rf cp.

Therefore, I should buy Tales Of Pirates Gold with the spare money.

Once I played kung fu, I did not know how to get strong, someone told me that you must have World of Kung fu Gold. That he gave me some WoKf gold.

or you buy
maplestory mesos. If you get
maple story mesos, you can continue this game.

Thank you for your sharing! I like i very much!

GHD IV mini styler has a safety feature that gives you peace of mind, by turning itself off if it is left unattended for 30 minutes. The unique digital technology of GHD hair straightener means that the temperature is automatically controlled even quicker for even better styling.

Creating tight curls, flicks and waves as well as the perfect straight. The ideal styling tool for urban angels with short hair, men's hair and fringes.

price includes: ghd IV salon styler,ghd purple roll bag.

product features:
Auto sleep mode(A built in safety feature that gives you peace of mind by turning off if the ghd IV styler is left unallended for 30 minutes.)
Universal voltage(So that you can use your styler in any country without an adaptor.)
Advanced ceramic heaters(The ultimate heating technology for the ultimate shine and style creation.)
All our products are cheap,if you want to find cheap ghd,come here and that is right.

If you want to find GHD hair products,you can write GHD straightener,GHD hair straighteners,GHD straightners,GHD hair,straighteners GHD in google browse.

Chanel Handbags are woman’s dream come true.

Chanel, a fashion name that has become synonymous with femininity since 100 years, is on the must-have list of every fashion-conscious woman.? And we bring these must-have Chanel Handbags at never before discounts, just for you.

It is only when you come across an Chanel New Arrivals, do you realize the power of her words.? Chanel handbags are crafted not just to be trendy, but trend-setting.? Hardly has lived a celebrity who has not been seen carrying a Chanel handbag under her arm; such has the influence of Chanel handbags as a fashion statement.

Chanel handbags have been so popular in the elite classes of the society, that their pricing is usually prohibitive for everyone else.? Discount Chanel handbags are really difficult to come across, but today should be your lucky day.? We bring you a superb unbeatable range of Chanel Flap bags, all at fantastic discounts.? With us, you have an incredible chance to buy your favorite Chanel handbags at rock bottom prices!

Chanel Handbags have always been at the forefront of luxury and style.? The Chanel classic quilted leather handbags and its reinventions have ruled fashion since forever.? Chanel handbags have remained extremely popular as they continue to merge evolving modern trends with the class and simplicity of its original avatar.

An Chanel 2008 Collection and Chanel 2009 Collection single handedly enhances the look you are carrying.? The reason you would buy a Chanel handbag is own a bag that mingles with your charm and intensifies it with its inherent simplicity.? If you have owned an authentic Chanel handbag before, you know what we are talking about.? If you are one of the unlucky people who haven’t yet gotten a chance to own an Chanel Cambon, now is your chance to shop for an authentic Chanel handbag and discover its ability to transform your look completely.

Buy Chanel handbags with us, and get fabulous discounts which you will never get at your favorite store.? We offer cheap authentic Chanel handbags and they are all up for grabs!

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.

Guest Contributors
Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use