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.

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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 Politics , Steven Levingston
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Excellent piece - extremely good telling of the domestic debate of foreign policy in the 40s-60s.

However, is the parrarel correct?

We have just had 8 years of a right government, and now the left is in power - Obama is really not feeling the pull of the right in a way that causes him to be tougher than he otherwise would be.

If anything, Obama has resisted any pull of the right - Obama has rejected it.

In the piece, the "slippery slope" is described as potential use of nuclear weapons in Asia - today the "slippery slope" is a return to the policies we had under Bush - hardly the same scale.

Overall, very good points in this piece.


Posted by: 37thand0street | February 12, 2010 12:19 PM

Thankyou Julian Zelizer for an excellent blog.

We can also draw warning from the ruin that the French brought on themselves in 1940 by letting their partisan political conflicts get out of hand.

In the late 1930s French politics became sharply polarized between left and right. The French people grew more absorbed with their domestic disputes than with addressing the Nazi threat that loomed nearby. French rightists delcared "better Hitler than Leon Blum!", the French socialist leader.

Partly as a result of this fratricidal political conflict, the French military was unprepared to deal with the German attack of May 10, 1940, and France was conquered by the Nazis.

Today those who work to polarize our country--we are talking mainly about Congressional Republicans and conservative talk-show hosts--harm our national securit in same way.

Posted by: Steve62 | February 12, 2010 1:21 PM

A very interesting and informative blog. However, I'm a bit confused by the reference to "the MacArthur crisis" in the 9th paragraph. The precdeing graphs had covered the 1960s and the damage done to the Democrats by the accusations they were soft on communism.

The MacArthir crisis(his firing by Truman) was during the Korean war in the early 50s.

Posted by: eherbert1 | February 12, 2010 2:52 PM

Just like the last president and several before him, the current one should be impeached for treason against his country.

But since all the progressives have infiltrated both parties, that will never happen until we vote them all out of office (Both R and D) and ensure we remain informed about what and WHO is governing our nation for several decades to come.

The European style of big government simply will not work here, no matter how hard they try. Freedom is born into us and, if it comes to it, we will protect it with our lives.

If they want images of Greece happening in downtown USA, they better wake up, read history books made before 1950, and stop trying to lie to us all.

Posted by: indep2 | February 12, 2010 3:05 PM

It is interesting that the vitriolic attacks of the Democratic Party against President George Bush between 2001-2008 are conveniently overlooked and ignored. Only the attacks against Truman and Johnson, Democratic presidents are cited. I would have been more impressed with the arguments made by the author of the blog, Julian E. Zelizer comprehensive in his critique. Furthermore, to equate the right of dissent to serving the goals and objectives of the Taliban or other terrorists is erroneous and defamatory. John Brennan can be given a questionable pass because he serves the current administration. Professor Zelizer gets no such reprieve because his omissions are deliberate and calculated to deceive. As a professor of history he should be truthful and inclusive, not devious and exclusive in the exposition of facts.

Posted by: chaplainn | February 12, 2010 3:15 PM

As indicated in newly provided homeland security strategy, maintaining the security of nation has many other aspects than wars and battles between the different party combatants. The review of history of foreign policies and learning their effects on internal policies will be the first step in getting a clear image of our present standing and view of where we are adressing to. The diplomatic relations are the basics of forign politics in these days.

Posted by: m_hirbodnia | February 13, 2010 3:32 AM

Why persist in this Myth that Obama's problem has been Republican "obstructionism"?

It has been embarrassingly clear for a year that the Far Left, the so-called "Progressives", have attempted to make "war" on the Moderate and Blue Dog Dems, which is precisely why the HealthCare montrosity stalled. You can't have deals made behind locked doors in the Senate without people noticing.

There has been an attempted coup d'etat from the Far Left of the entire Democratic Party. Thus far, a failure. It is the Far Left that's excoriated Obama for continuing Bush policies on the conduct of war.

Professor Zelizer should begin to engage in some critical analysis instead of starting with his preferred premise and using a mixed salad to try to support his premise - which was false to begin with. If that doesn't work, he should turn on his hearing aid.

Posted by: nanda1 | February 14, 2010 10:57 AM

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