Heads in the Sand: The Democrats and National Security

This is the first book I’ve read that’s explained the Democrats handling of foreign policy and the Iraq war that’s really made it all come together in a sensical way.

The short version of the history: the Cold war ends. Clinton doesn’t change much; the US largely keeps the system of international institutions built up during the cold war to tie the world together into an interdependent political and economic framework to both contain the Soviet Union and reduce war in general - NATO, the UN, what became the WTO, the large numbers of organizations, you name it. Clinton does push the boundaries a bit on action outside of the institutional framework; Bosnia wasn’t UN-authorized. Still, nothing major.

Then, Bush comes into office and decides to chuck the entire international system overboard in favor of doing whatever the US wants, whenever it wants, for whatever narrow self-interest it thinks is a good idea. Cue the Iraq disaster, baiting Russia into opposition again by encircling it in US quasi-allies and missile defense systems, egging on nuclear development in Iraq and North Korea, and so on. The “rollback” people - mostly conservatives hadn’t really had any policy control since a brief period under Eisenhowever, except some adjustments under Reagan, but with Bush they pretty much were the ideology driving the government.

…and that’s pretty much it. This explains the imperialist rhetoric we get now - all for ourselves and damn the rest is at the root of it. It explains the torture; it’s not like we care about international standards now. When you combine the mindset with the shock of 9/11, it explains the xenophobic unthinking venom directed at everyone who didn’t want to turn the world into a good vs. evil crusade of invasions and resource extraction - Susan Sontag getting called a traitor for saying that bin Laden attacked us because of our policies, Andrew Sullivan saying the left of the US might mount a fifth column, Phil Donohue and his high ratings getting chucked off the air by MSNBC because he actually regularly gave anti-war people discussion slots.

The day-to-day narrative of tactical politics woven through this is depressing as hell. The Democrats, thanks to years of beatings on foreign policy, and some actual agreement here and there with the hegemony project, effectively give up on defending the stable international order, don’t even attempt to criticize Bush’s plans, and sometimes actively go after anyone who does. They run in 2002 on “we agree with Bush on foreign policy, so whatever, let’s talk about the economy” and then get their asses handed to them by the GOP running “Senator X is an ally of Saddam Hussein because they don’t think we should invade them immediatelly to stop their ticking nuclear bombs” ads anyway for their deference. Even if they had fought back on said criticisms, what would the ground be? We agree that Saddam is an imminent deadly threat, but not that much of one? You don’t argue with a mindset by quibbling over the details.

Pollack and his Gathering Storm, and the liberal do-gooder suckers like me who fell for it, kind of summarizes everything that happened on the left. Sure, Bush is a deranged moron, but hey, we can use him for our own ends! Unlike the right, we don’t think the people who disagree on Iraq are evil as much as misguided! We can use the war to help the middle east. That it was couched in ridiculous Munich analogies and built on more than a whiff of remake-the-world unrealism escaped notice. Pollack was the perfect carrier for this; he was no right winger, got into fights with Wolfwitz back in the 1990s, and previously had been one of the engagement and containment guys, but like the right and the rest of the country, the lack of constraints in the post-Soviet era let him go a little farther than before.

Cue the war, with some liberals dropping out as it approached when Bush’s obvious bad faith became ever more visible, and more quitting in disgust over time as things get worse and worse in Iraq. The left split into maybe three factions - the people who threw up their hands and didn’t know what to think; the people who thought it would have been a good idea with a competent president in charge (Tom Friedman), and didn’t really change any of their assumptions; and the people who gave up on the model and went looking elsewhere.

Dean actually ran on a model critique, but apparently the left (and definitely the establishment; remember Dean saying how the spider-hole capture of Saddam wouldn’t change anything? Remember how he was actually right?) wasn’t ready for that, so we got Kerry in 2004 on the Tom Friedman model of criticizing execution while still saying the war was a good idea and staying there, dressed up in uniform the whole time to boot. Kerry got beat. The Democrats run in 2006 walked back a bit from this, but still not really making any fundamental criticisms; at this point, things have gotten so bad they actually win.

At this point, having lucked into victory, they fuck it up. Out comes the the Baker commission, which puts out a pretty much impossible to implement set of recommendations to fix Iraq (lots more troops we don’t have) that Bush will never implement anyway (don’t try to steal their oil, for example). Still, it and the uptick in daily causalities start to affect the polls so much some Republicans might actually start pushing for the war to end. Bush comes up with the Petraeus dog-and-pony show and surge; the Democrats fuck up pointing out his stats are ridiculous and Bush manages to save his Iraq policy. Additionally, the ethnic cleansing eventually runs out of people to kill, and the military apparently lucks into buying off one of the warring parties, so casualties go down and the war is going to last until the next President.

The heavily-politicized and misleading Petraeus report lets the GOP continue what they’ve been doing for a while now as damage control. High casualties bringing support down? Figure out how to reduce the casualties, don’t look at the broader point - restrict the discussion to tactical month-to-month issues, rather than the goals and terms of what we’re trying to do, and exactly how many years (or decades) we’re going to be in Iraq.

The unifying theme here for the left and the Democrats? There is no middle ground, and you’re not going to get anywhere looking for it. Same deal for complaining that the GOP “politicizes” national security; you might want to actually push some ideas of your own. It turns out that the old idea - doing what we were after WWII - was just fine. Might look into that, rather than trying to come up with a nicer way of conquering the world.

As a postscript, it’s interesting that over the last few months Bush has completely walked his position back on North Korea, and over the last few weeks he and McCain have been forced over their noisy objections into a “when are we leaving discussion.” This almost completely reverses the terms - McCain has gone from 100 years into Iraq to agreeing with the 16 month timetable out of Malaki - who says its basically the same as Obamas - while trying to find ways to quibble with the Obama timeline proposal itself.

Did we just get lucky that Malaki decided to push back?

The much simpler version: in the entertainment age, politics has become about story-telling. Pundits, the neocons, the war, Bush are all examples of politics becoming invested in narrative (as opposed to messy reality).

Whoever tells the best story wins. The only difference is that things have gotten so bad now that the stories had to change. Also, the Democrats lucked into a decent candidate this time who is actually good at telling stories (and manages to tell the right kinds of stories).

Every single discussion you mentioned went bad for Democrats because they tried to sell a story that was simply less compelling than that of the Republicans. 9/11 was really instrumental. It was about the most powerful story that could have been told and the Republicans rode the wave, co-opting the narrative for their own purposes. Without 9/11 I think we would have had a bad but not nearly as catastrophic four years with Bush.

9/11 was simply a very powerful instrument in a machinery that was already telling stories like:

  • “budgets are overrated, there’s no reason you can’t have a tax cut on the house”
  • “climate change is just a bunch of egghead/new age paranoia and you don’t need to worry about it”.
  • “the GOP represents smaller government and fiscal responsibility”

That all segued into powerful story-telling about connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda, the looming threat of Iraq and the potential glory of a “just” war to root out its evil.

Democrats were merely behind the curve. They saw this immensely powerful rhetorical tool and tried to use it themselves, failing miserably. They were just a little too honest and smart to really pull it off. The American public fell hook, line and sinker. And really they’re still there. They still listen to pundits. They still desperately want a salvageable “good guy” story to come out of Iraq. They still really want to believe that there are simple answers to all of our current woes.

Things just got so bad that they finally had to start listening to new stories. And this time it’s the Republicans who are behind the curve. Finally a few democrats have managed to spin a few good yarns themselves and reality is far too pervasive in our daily lives to be ignored.