In the years after the Vietnam War, the nation’s increasingly polarized political parties became binary opposites of each other on virtually every policy issue. In general, Democrats wanted to throw money at domestic programs while slashing defense outlays, while Republicans wanted to throw money at defense while slashing domestic outlays. But that was not the way the two parties had always been: a generation earlier, it was the Democrats who had presided over all four of the pre-Reagan defense buildups in the 20th Century, and it was Republicans who had wanted to avoid foreign entanglements. So there is nothing permanent or inevitable about the post-Vietnam positions of the two parties on national security.
In fact, they may be about to trade places again — at least in the perceptions of voters. The Republican reputation for being reliable stewards of national defense took quite a beating during the first decade of the new millennium. First, the Bush Administration presided over the biggest attack on the American homeland ever. Then it launched a war against the wrong enemy that it very nearly lost. And while all this was going on, it pressed forward with a hugely expensive plan for “military transformation” that seemed curiously disconnected from the threats the nation was facing. Not surprisingly, defense outlays increased by leaps and bounds, from about $300 billion the year George W. Bush took office to about $700 billion the year he left — the latter number representing nearly half of all global military spending, according to his second defense secretary. But all that money didn’t seem to make much difference in dealing with the rag-tag collection of unconventional adversaries the nation faced in places like Afghanistan.
Had it not been for the Bush Administration’s ill-conceived war in Iraq, Barack Obama would not be President today. He bested his other Democratic rivals to win the nomination and then went on to defeat Republican nominee John McCain mainly by promising to end an unpopular war. But he did not draw the lesson from that victory that one might have expected — rather than beating a hasty retreat out of Southwest Asia, the new President listened to his military advisors and stuck with the plan for stabilizing Iraq. Furthermore, he focused greater funding and forces on Afghanistan, the place from which the 9-11 attacks had actually originated. Of course, that was exactly what he had said he would do during his election campaign, but many observers had wrongly assumed that his rhetoric about focusing on Afghanistan was just a smokescreen for exiting Iraq. It turns out he actually meant what he had said, and because the timetable for drawing down in Iraq overlapped with the timetable for surging in Afghanistan, he ended up requesting more money for the military in his first defense budget than the Bush Administration ever had.
Personally, I think we are spending too much on defense — as we are on entitlements and various other items. But when a progressive Democrat raises defense spending in the midst of a fiscal crisis and ramps up the operating tempo of attacks on overseas enemies, you have to wonder what more his Republican opponent could have done beyond the steps Obama has taken. The Obama Administration is leading the world in trying to impose tough sanctions on Iran as a way of discouraging nuclear proliferation, conducting a very effective global campaign against terrorists, and redirecting military investment into areas that are a better match for the emerging threat environment (like cyber security). O.K., so a lot of this is a continuation of what his predecessor was already doing, pursued under the leadership of a holdover Republican defense secretary. But it took Bush two terms to figure out what needed to be done, and Obama seems to have caught on much faster. Few observers expected he would prosecute the war effort as vigorously as Bush had (it’s undoubtedly a big surprise to the people who awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize).
This has left Republicans with relatively little to say about defense — other than the complaint of a few conservative think tanks that the government should be spending even more on defense. But with the mainstream of the Republican Party calling for both tax cuts and deficit reductions, the idea of spending more on the military sounds almost oxymoronic. Obama has stolen their thunder on national defense, and maybe some of their electoral base. If he can avoid a 9/11-style attack, then his national-security record is likely to look a lot better than that of President Bush. And some elements of his domestic agenda, like the decision to back a new generation of nuclear power plants, address the nation’s broader vulnerability to foreign pressure. So while it is still early in the Obama era, the case can already be made that Republicans are losing their edge, not to mention their credibility, on defense matters. If Obama can deal with the budget deficit too, there won’t be much left besides abortion for Sarah Palin to run on in 2012.
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