The cost of partisanship on national security
Conflict between Republicans and Democrats over domestic policy issues -- especially when elections are looming -- has long shaped America's national security debates. The head-to-head confrontations President Obama has encountered are, therefore, nothing new. A historical perspective, however, provides some insight and potential lessons for the combatants, as Julian E. Zelizer shows in his new book "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
GUEST BLOGGER: Julian E. Zelizer
The White House has become increasingly frustrated with the continued Republican attacks on President Obama's national security policies. Since early in his administration, Republicans, led by former Vice President Richard Cheney, have tapped into the familiar argument that the Democrats are weak on defense.
John Brennan, assistant to the president and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security, castigated Republicans in USA Today. "Politics should never get in the way of national security," he wrote. "But too many in Washington are now misrepresenting the facts to score political points." Somewhat predictably, he concluded with a political attack of his own: "Politically motivated criticism and unfounded fear-mongering only serve the goals of al-Qaeda."
While the intensity of these kind of partisans battles on national security may seem shocking, in fact, politics has never stopped at the water's edge. Indeed, even when President Harry Truman and Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg entered into their historic bipartisan alliance in 1947 and 1948 to build America's national security state, their colleagues were ramping up their rhetoric about the failures of the other party. Democrats, according to Republicans, allowed communist spies to infiltrate at home and refused to use enough military force against communists in Asia. Republicans, Democrats responded, were isolationists.
Some observers might simply shrug off current events as being only the latest chapter in a long history of partisan attacks on security issues.
But we must remember that these political battles over foreign policy have had devastating effects. This was the case between 1949 when China fell to communism and 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson "Americanized" the war in Vietnam by escalating the number of troops sent to the region.
Johnson's decision to expand the war in Vietnam and ignore the many advisors who warned that the conflict posed great risks to the United States and was not essential to the Cold War grew out of the politics of Cold War America.
Johnson was part of an entire generation of Democrats who were scarred by the political gains that Republicans made in the 1950s through the issue of anti-communism. These Democrats all feared repeating the 1952 elections when the GOP, with a military hero at the top of the ticket, won control of the White House and Congress by focusing on corruption, anti-communism and Korea.
In the early 1960s, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield warned his colleagues that "the scars of partisan politics are still with us years afterward. Let no one doubt that we have paid a massive price for the politics of foreign policy of an earlier day. We have paid for its divisiveness with lives and with billions of dollars of foreign aid -- much of which has vanished without a constructive trace into the maw of Asia -- and I hope we are not now beginning to pay for it, once again, with many lives."
But those were not warnings that Johnson took to heart. Determined not to allow Republicans to regain a national security advantage, Johnson rejected proposals that called for a withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. According to William Bundy, "The president, his advisors, and almost every experienced Washington observer thought that the most serious pressure on American opinion must come in time from the hard-line right wing. To make a 'soft' move and get nothing for it . . . was, it was deeply believed, likely to open the way to the kind wide outcry for extreme measures that had characterized the MacArthur crisis."
Johnson argued that if Republicans gained control of government they would conduct a much more dangerous war by using nuclear weapons and inciting the Chinese into the conflict. While there were many factors behind his decision, including the famous domino theory, Johnson's political fears were central, even after his landslide victory in 1964.
Today, we should remember the lessons of Vietnam and the immense costs of the political battles that rocked Cold War America. While it can be healthy to hash out differences over national security policies, politicians must be extremely cautious. The impact of a heated political environment can be extremely damaging and skew policy in dangerous directions.
By Steven E. Levingston |
February 12, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Previous: Sen. Scott Brown seeking publisher for his life story | Next: Big book readers: NBA's international players
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: 37thand0street | February 12, 2010 12:19 PM
Posted by: Steve62 | February 12, 2010 1:21 PM
Posted by: eherbert1 | February 12, 2010 2:52 PM
Posted by: indep2 | February 12, 2010 3:05 PM
Posted by: chaplainn | February 12, 2010 3:15 PM
Posted by: m_hirbodnia | February 13, 2010 3:32 AM
Posted by: nanda1 | February 14, 2010 10:57 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.