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January 12, 2007

The Burden of Proof
Posted by David Shorr

Above all cautionary lessons, you'd think the Iraq debacle has demonstrated the folly of resorting to military force without first gaining the upper hand of political legitimacy, establishing the existence of the threat, and clarifying, through serious planning, how armed force will achieve your objectives. You'd think that this searing experience would make clear that prudence in the resort to force is different from willingness to use force.

After Iraq, surely our political discourse is mature enough that people no longer have to prove their national security credentials by pointing toward where they would use force, and thereby falling into the same sloppy strategic reasoning that got us into Iraq in the first place. We have learned that to be hesitant to use force is simply to respect its destructive bluntness as an instrument and wait until the proper moment.

Surely the burden of political proof has shifted toward those with an itchy trigger finger. That IS the popular wisdom of November's anti-Iraq War elctoral mandate, right? From the looks of Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the new New Yorker, apparently not.

The article compares and contrasts the Democratic presidential frontrunners' foreign policy views. Maybe some of the quotes from the candidates are interesting, I don't know. Frankly I'm having trouble seeing past Goldberg's retrograde premise. He is still asking "do they have the stomach," [a paraphrase, not a quote] when he should be asking "do they have the judgment."

Just one example to show how flimsy this is: "Polls also show that a sizable minority of Democrats now feel that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake--thirty five per cent." [That one is a quote.] Is this serious political analysis? Just what does this sizable minority indicate?

Can we please have a serious debate? Please?

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Having the stomach to use force is part of having the judgment to know when, and when not, to use it.

Democrats lost the public's confidence on this point between George McGovern's candidacy and the Iranian hostage crisis. Naturally they would like Americans to forget about this. What I don't think they understand is that most Americans have, in fact, forgotten about this. Democrats have not thereby regained the public's confidence, because you don't get something for nothing. What the public hasn't seen from Democrats isn't bellicosity in national security affairs, but interest in national security affairs.

It really is true, even after 9/11, that most politically prominent Democrats (note to bloggers at sites like this one: that's not you) would rather talk about almost any issue than national security affairs. The organized interest groups that dominate the Democratic Party all have agendas wholly outside the national security field (the one exception involves partisans of Israel). Becoming an expert in national security affairs hasn't been a path to prominence in the Democratic Party for decades, because the groups who matter in the party care most about other things. (It is of course also true that the centrality of the permanent campaign in modern American politics means that most candidates and officeholders find it harder to gain a reputation for expertise and judgment in any area, including national security.)

The bad news is that this is remains a serious political problem for Democrats. John Kerry's 2004 candidacy should have settled the question over whether this problem could be overcome by shallow symbolism and campaign spin. The good news is that for Democrats to regain credibility in this area what they need to invest is mostly hard work; actually changing positions as to policy should not, in principle, be necessary. You don't need to be anti-defense to point out that the billions spent on missile defense has been money poured down a rathole; that we were well into our second war with Iraq before the Iraqis managed to kill as many Marines as the Osprey tilt-rotor transport (which after over a decade of development still hasn't made it to Iraq itself); or that America has many foreign policy interests more pressing than the one we have in altering the internal political structure of Arab countries.

One example of how Democratic disinterest in national security affairs hurts politically, and how easily that damage could be repaired: early in the Bush administration the Navy decided to name the last ship in the Nimitz class of aircraft carriers after the elder President Bush. For egregious institutional sucking up you could hardly do better than naming a capital ship after the living father of the current President. Propriety and naval tradition (let alone distaste for the pervasive moral corruption of high-level Washington) support condemnation of the idea; it would have been an excellent opportunity, in particular, for John Kerry to demonstrate that he cared about the Navy. To my knowledge, neither he nor any other Democratic politician has ever even mentioned this matter.

The point is not that John Kerry would have been better off politically to have made a gesture toward caring about the Navy, but that he'd have been better off if he actually cared about the Navy. The Navy, like the other armed services, like the intelligence agencies and the atrophied State Department, belongs to the country; Democrats just haven't shown they think it belongs to them.

Zathras' comment is thoughtful and has elements of truth. I would rather have seen this in the New Yorker.

As Zathras points out, the Navy is an important voting block. This is a serious problem for democracy -- the Navy needs to serve the republic as the republic needs, not be served as the naval community prefers. But there is no obvious solution.

Did democrats abandon the military voting blocks, or did the military abandon the Democratic Party? Which came first? It might perhapsn be argued, but it looks to me like the military voting blocks went solidly GOP back while democrats were solidly voting for military spending increases. It's a social thing and I'm not at all clear what democrats can do about it. (I don't consider that my problem, beyond its effect on the nation.)

If Kerry had showed he cared about the Navy, it would have been like a southern black candidate showing he cared about white segregationists. A nice start toward later compromises, but it wouldn't have gotten him any Navy votes.

The idea that democrats don't care about defense or national security is no accident -- it's been a republican talking point for 50 years. It can't be overcome with expertise or with actual legislation that favors the military. It's a public perception that can only be challenged by a Democratic president who leads a well-funded military to great victories. Or possibly some other method would work, but the central thrust would have to be to change US opinion. And that would be hard with uniformed military officers badmouthing democrats at every opportunity to speak off the record.

It's a problem with no easy solution. The Navy voting block would do better to be even-handed and carefully give their votes to the individual politicians who do the most for the Navy. By committing themselves to one side they risk being taken for granted and stinted. But it's hard to tell people their cultural traditions are bad for them....

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