'Republicans Help Terrorists'
August 23, 2006
Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.
Whenever Democrats criticize the Bush administration on the subjects of Iraq or terrorism, they are quickly accused of “playing politics” with national security. The usual reply is that it’s the Republicans who have played politics with national security over and over again, not only using the issue to bludgeon Democrats, but even making military decisions—such as delaying the assault on Fallujah until after the 2004 election had passed—based on political considerations. (The delay, as NBC News reported two days after the election, was “for obvious political reasons.”)
But perhaps Democrats should stop complaining about national security being politicized, and start playing some politics of their own, not just defensively but offensively. It’s time to retire “am not!” as a Democratic response to GOP arguments.
The truth is that in 2006 and 2008, if Democrats can just stay even with Republicans on national security, they should win in a rout since they have wide advantages on almost every domestic issue. And for the first time in years, the public does in fact rate the two parties essentially equal on matters of war and terrorism. But if Democrats want to win on national security—not just stay even, but win—they have to be tough. And not tough in the way Democratic centrists have been thinking about it for a while—“If I say I stand with Republicans on every war, I’ll look tough”—but tough in a way that demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the nature of toughness, both with foreign enemies and domestic opponents.
The first step is to address Republicans the way they usually address Democrats: with ridicule and contempt.
Last week, Orrin Hatch said that terrorists are “waiting for the Democrats here to take control, let things cool off and then strike again.” I can just see bin Laden, deep in a cave on the Afghan-Pakistani border, saying to Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Ayman, did you see the latest poll from the 7th congressional district in Colorado? I think Ed Perlmutter could pull it out, Allah be praised!” Hatch’s statement may be ridiculous, but it’s not unusual. In fact, we hear virtually the same thing from Republican voices all the time: not just that Democratic policies are unwise, but that terrorists actively support Democrats, and Democrats actively sympathize with terrorists.
Think about what happened when Osama bin Laden released a videotape just days before the 2004 election. John Kerry said it showed that Bush should have caught bin Laden at Tora Bora. Bush’s allies said it showed that bin Laden supported Kerry.
The truth, of course, was just the opposite. As Ron Suskind reported in The One-Percent Doctrine, when the bin Laden tape was released, CIA officials agreed that bin Laden was actually doing what he could to aid Bush’s re-election. The terrorist leader is many things, but stupid is not one of them. He understands that Bush is not only the perfect symbolic foil for him, but that Bush’s actions, most particularly the invasion of Iraq, were exactly what bin Laden had been hoping for. Bin Laden knew his future depending on having George W. Bush to kick around for a few more years.
So Democrats need to say just that: When Bush invaded Iraq, he answered Osama bin Laden’s prayers, and everyone who thinks the war was a good idea has al-Qaida’s gratitude. Furthermore, if a Republican wins the White House in 2008, bin Laden and Zawahiri will be popping the champagne. Don’t imply it, say it: Republicans help terrorists.
One of the standard GOP talking points is that Democrats don’t understand the nature of the terrorist threat. The appropriate answer is not, “Yes, we do understand it.” When you say that, you’re still talking about whether Democrats are tough enough on terrorism. The appropriate response is to start making the case that it’s Republicans who don’t understand terrorism. If you think the Iraq war has made us safer, then you don’t understand terrorism, you don’t understand al-Qaida, you don’t understand what has happened over the last five years and you cannot be trusted with America’s security. Don’t imply it, say it.
Republicans have also built every presidential campaign for the last 40 years around the idea that the Democrat is weak and effeminate, while the Republican is strong and manly. They’ll do it again in 2008. So Democrats need to not argue, “Yes, we are too strong”—again, that’s talking about whether Democrats are strong or not—and argue instead that Republicans are weak. Nor is it enough to say, “They’re strong, but dumb.” The truth is they’re a bunch of insecure wimps, so unsure of their masculinity they feel a burning need to invade somebody every couple of years to show they’re real men. Don’t imply it, say it. The Republicans should be characterized as the party of whiny fearful sissies, and until they get the keys to the military taken from them, we’re all at risk. Had we not invaded Iraq, al-Qaida might have been destroyed by now.
The Israeli debacle in Lebanon is an excellent opportunity to make this case. The Israeli operation was Bushism in action, all the more surprising coming from a government that is supposed to have a better understanding of their foes. Afraid of being seen as weak, the Olmert government—led by a prime minister and defense minister who both lacked the lengthy military careers of most of the country’s recent leaders and who thus were particularly keen to prove their toughness—responded to a provocation by launching a massive air assault followed by a ground invasion. They believed that if they inflicted enough damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure, the Lebanese people would turn against Hezbollah—just as neoconservatives now argue that a strategic bombing campaign would cause the Iranian people to rise up and overthrow the mullahs. (And no, I’m not kidding. People like Bill Kristol are actually arguing that.)
Of course, just the opposite happened—today Hezbollah has many more Lebanese supporters than it did two months ago. The Israelis also believed that with enough bombs, Hezbollah itself could be destroyed—and just the opposite happened there, too. Hezbollah depleted its stock of weapons—which Iran will be happy to resupply—and lost some of its fighters, but it has emerged as one of the most potent forces in the Arab world, with vastly more political capital than it had before. Hezbollah is hailed throughout the Middle East as heroic victors over the Jews and their American patrons, and parents are naming their newborn boys “Nasrallah.” Israel failed because it didn’t understand what it was fighting against, just as the Bush administration doesn’t understand how to fight terrorism.
Time For Some Tough Love
Both of the next two elections will be fought in no small part about Iraq. The heart of the Republican strategy is not so much to convince people that leaving Iraq is a bad idea—they probably realize they’ve lost that argument—but that if it’s Democrats who preside over the departure, they’ll do it in a way that makes us all feel weak and humiliated. That’s why we hear all these phrases signifying weakness: We can’t “cut and run,” walk away with “our tail between our legs” and accept “defeat.”
So Democrats need to find an exit strategy that not only will work, but that makes sense to the American people and allows them to sign on to it without they themselves feeling weak in the process. Despite the fact that a clear majority of the American people believe the war was a mistake and want to get out, Democrats have to not only demonstrate to people that they agree with them on this issue, but that they will go about the withdrawal in a way they can live with emotionally. Voters have to be convinced that the Democratic plan is smart, but also that it will make them feel strong in the process.
And this is how they can do it: “Tough Love for Iraq.”
We’ve done what we can, and now we’re changing the nature of our presence in Iraq. We’ll be there to provide the Iraqi army with logistical and air support, we’ll be there to assist in targeted operations against insurgents, and we’ll provide expertise and consultation in the reconstruction process. But we’re not going to be patrolling the streets to keep order, and we’re not going to have 130,000 of our soldiers acting as targets for discontent and violence. We’ll help you, Iraq, but you’ve got to stand up on your own.
The idea of “tough love” places America—and those who support the policy of withdrawal—not as a victim but as a parent who’s had it up to here. The Republicans, on the other hand, are those indulgent parents who won’t say no. (Not only is it good politics, it will have the added benefit of making James Dobson’s head explode.)
Finally, the tough love strategy for Iraq has to be placed in the context of a new strategy for combating terrorism, one that can be presented to the public as a clean break with the bumbling and thick-headedness of the Bush years. It could include elements like a new commitment to actual homeland security based on real threats, and a redrawn “hearts and minds” effort that consists of something more than Karen Hughes telling Muslims that America is really, really awesome.
But whatever the details of the Democratic national security strategy, it will succeed only if Americans believe that signing on to it, and voting for its advocates, will make them feel good about themselves. If Democrats can do that, they will have truly changed the debate.