Monday, May 28, 2007

Dangerous Honesty

In the recently held first Democratic Presidential Debate, two legitimate candidates, John Edwards and Joseph Biden, did not raise their hands when asked if they believed in the existence of a “global war on terror”.

After reading an article that discusses their positions in more detail, I have two statements to make.

First, Biden and Edwards are absolutely right.

Second, it is foolish for them to admit this belief while they are Presidential candidates.

To defend my first statement, let me use Biden’s own words.

"Terrorism is a means, not an end, and very different groups and countries are
using it toward very different goals. If we can't even identify the enemy or
describe the war we're fighting, it's difficult to see how we will win."

This makes perfect sense to me.

We are indisputably at war, but to say we are at war with “Terror” introduces a dangerous ambiguity that could – and many would say already has – led to actions that could reduce our capacity to accomplish our internationally endorsed mission to destroy al-Qaeda. For example, consider the likelihood of capturing, killing or disrupting the activities of Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants if a substantial fraction of the troops securing Baghdad could be diverted to the Afghan-Pakistani border.

One could argue that September 11th resulted in a mandate to destroy or disrupt other organizations besides al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If this is the case, then these organizations, groups or individuals should be listed explicitly. Are we at war with Hamas? With Hezbollah? With Chechen Muslims that attack Russian soldiers? The answer seems to be no, though all of these organizations execute attacks that many would agree are designed primarily to produce terror among specific populations.

Clearly the Bush Administration decided that we were at war with Saddam Hussein – or at least that he was at war with us (hence the threat he posed that needed to be preempted). The Bush Administration now considers Iraq the ‘central front in the war on terror’. Today, that statement is correct. However, it was not before we arrived.

But I raise Iraq not to question the fundamental merit of the invasion and occupation, only to illustrate the dangers of an ambiguously defined “War”.

The Bush Administration has since tried to redefine this war as one against “Islamic Fascism”. This seems slightly more correct, but it still begs the question: who is an Islamic Fascist and who is not? Better we should explicitly declare war on each entity or organization that threatens us. If there are residual elements or individuals that do not fit into a nice neat box, then they probably don’t need a public title to deal with anyway. Let the CIA and/or the FBI root them out and employ discreet special forces or even domestic law enforcement personnel as necessary and appropriate.

Now, on to my second statement.

Despite its merits and basic validity, Democratic presidential candidates are the last people that should be advancing the argument I have just articulated. Many, if not most, Americans still equate the phrase “War on Terror” with a war against al-Qaeda and/or a shadowy group that wants to harm us and has in the past.

For this reason, a denial of the “War on Terror” as presented in media sound-bites, is easily interpreted (or presented by an opponent) as a denial that we are at war with Osama Bin Laden and his collaborators. Such a misperception will cost a candidate dearly in the coming election. People may want to disengage our military from Iraq, but I doubt that any rational American wants to diminish the pressure on al-Qaeda one ounce. My instincts tell me that a “surge” to Afghanistan to finally hunt down Bin Laden would be welcomed by most Americans if we weren’t facing our current struggle in Iraq.

All that being said, let me be clear about one additional point: if one of these candidates is actually elected President of the United States, it will then become their obligation to define and articulate a more accurate vision of the war we are fighting to the American people (and certainly to govern by it). Fortunately, the Presidency provides a pulpit to do this, whereas the campaign trail does not.

However, to do so now play into the hands of Republicans who have tried – very successfully – to portray Democrats as weak, defeatist and/or na├»ve when it comes to security and foreign affairs. These charges were not particularly effective in the 90’s after the Soviet Union dissolved and the stock market soared, but today it is once again a potent political weapon.

It pains me to advocate a candidate holding his/her tongue on such a critical issue in a Presidential election, but I feel that in this case, the end justifies the means.


Tim said...

In my perfect (and nonexistent world), Biden and Gore would be the front-runners for the Democratic nomination.

Jared, though you're probably right from a campaign tactics perspective, I'm not sure it's the right one from the big picture.

You mentioned that Democrats speaking against the terminology of the "War on Terror" would make them look weak. I believe that accepting Republican linguistic framing is actually the real source of Democratic weakness (perceived and real.)

Democrats are all too accepting of Republican word choice ranging from the death tax (estate tax) to partial-birth abortion (late-term abortion) to tax relief to the War on Terror. Democrats need to get some balls and reframe the language of the debate, not accommodate it.

Jared said...

Your comment about linguistic framing being the source of democratic weakness is a great point and I agree with it.

For that reason I thought very hard about my second point in the post, and never completely felt comfortable with it.

The reframing task varies in difficulty on issue to issue I think and it also varies in terms of political danger. With respect to security, the one area where Democrats still struggle against Republicans, I think reframing is particularly dangerous right now - especially because they cannot all get on the same page. It would be one thing if all the Democrats raised their hand - or even if Pelosi, Reid and other recognized Dem leaders were saying the same thing. But since they are not, I think the dangers outweigh the benefit.... again though, I'm not sure how confident I am in that opinion. My gut instinct is always to tell it like it is - as often as possible and as loud as necessary... and I don't like going against it.

What the Democrats need is a real leader of the party and this is something they have been totally lacking for the last 6 years. Unless one gets to the Oval Office though, they will not get one in the foreesable future..

Unknown said...

The United States has a fascination with wars on abstract concepts (war on crime, war on poverty, war on drugs). It also has a 0% victory rate in such wars, probably because they are inherently unwinnable.

As to the wisdom of questioning such terminology, I don't think it's as big a deal as you make it sound, Jared. The American people's love affair with the Bush administration's macho swagger and fear-mongering propaganda is waning. More and more people are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. With the Republican Party in growing disarray as it gradually distances itself from President Alfred E. Neuman, I think the Democrats will have a great opportunity to start talking about foreign policy on their own terms. Whether they will seize that opportunity is uncertain--as you say, there is no Bill Clintonesque dynamo leaping to the fore--but it seems as good a time as any to begin shredding the dictionary of Republican Newspeak.