Iraq isn’t the only place where a recent change in military strategy has failed to produce political reconciliation. In Washington, Republicans are singing the praises of General Petraeus while some Democrats call him “General Betray-Us,” providing the latest evidence of how polarized American politics has become. The public is not pleased. A New York Times-CBS News survey finds that 68% of the public thinks the military is better equipped than the political parts of the government to fashion an acceptable outcome in Iraq, while only 21% put their faith in Congress and 5% in the President.
These findings are consistent with other polling data placing the popularity of the President and Congress at the lowest levels recorded in modern times. Presidential approval has fallen to levels not seen since the Watergate scandal, while the Gallup Poll finds 18% approval of the Congress and 76% disapproval. The disaffection with political institutions is approaching a point where America seems more like Weimar Germany than Jefferson’s Republic. How can this be happening at a time when the economy is growing and American culture is admired around the globe?
It isn’t just the war in Iraq, which has claimed fewer American lives in four years of fighting than smoking claims every four days. The more fundamental problem is that the two major political parties can’t seem to agree on anything anymore, including the need to produce a federal budget. Their philosophies of government are simply too different. And while their views of global affairs are little more than extensions of their domestic values — individualism versus collectivism, realism versus idealism, etc. — a look at the divergent ways the parties approach national security makes you wonder how they can continue to co-exist in the same political system.
There are five basic precepts underpinning Republican security policies. First, Republicans believe in peace through strength, which means spending generously on the military. Second, they believe in self-reliance rather than depending on the good intentions of others, an implicit justification for unilateralism in global affairs. Third, they believe American values are the only suitable basis for human progress, and therefore must be spread around the world. Fourth, they believe that national interest is the key driver of state behavior, and that collective security arrangements like the United Nations are doomed to failure. Finally, they prefer concrete, tangible solutions to security challenges, like missile defense, rather than abstractions like deterrence or the balance of power.
Democrats seem to inhabit a different world. They want to address the root causes of security problems, such as grinding poverty and denial of human rights, rather than resorting to military force. They favor the collective action of like-minded nations over unilateralism, and think that morality must come ahead of national interest in defining America’s policies abroad. And they believe that the security concerns defined by traditional power politics are being superceded by non-traditional challenges such as climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, and the proliferation of technologies of mass murder.
The tensions between these contending worldviews can be contained as long as prosperity persists at home and the stakes in foreign wars are not overwhelming. But if the U.S. economy nosedived or national survival were on the line, the Weimar analogy might look like more than a rhetorical flourish.
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