An AP-Ipsos poll done late last week shows that most Americans think the Democrats lack a decent strategy for dealing with Iraq (see here). Yet just a few days earlier, Americans voted mostly Democratic to give that party its largest win in three decades. What can be made of this?
Well, for one thing, it is clear that the GOP’s guaranteed security vote has evaporated. The poll seems to indicate that over half of the respondents place Iraq or terrorism as the #1 issue. While this is a far cry from the 90+% that placed national security issues as #1 in the aftermath of 9/11, it shows that there is still a strong national security vote. GOP wonks were freaked out by October polls that showed the GOP running 5% behind the Democrats on national security trustworthiness.
In the intense days immediately following 9/11, the GOP could rely on the solid security vote. A lot of people saw this as the #1 issue, and most of them trusted the GOP to take care of it. The GOP relied heavily on that sentiment in subsequent years. However, as 9/11 has faded further into history and our war in the Middle East has dragged on, the security vote has slowly dropped off.
What’s more is that a significant number of Americans started thinking the GOP wasn’t doing such a great job on security. Although they didn’t think the Democrats had a plan, they started thinking the Dems couldn’t be much worse on security than the GOP and perhaps might be better. GOP wonks still can’t fathom this sentiment.
During the heady days of being entrusted with the nation’s security, the GOP moved into the power corruption mode. They expanded government (size and power), domestic spending, and pocket lining at a rate that hadn’t been seen since LBJ’s days. As the GOP elephant grew larger and its security camouflage shrunk, its excesses and violations of its own principles became stunningly clear. As GOPers in Congress asked, “Do I look fat in this NCLB bill, Medicare expansion bill, or earmark?” voting Americans became disgusted.
But why did the GOP’s security camouflage shrink? Why has the public trust in the GOP to manage national security slipped? Mark Steyn in this article claims that the jihadist strategy of wearing down Americans with “a couple of deaths here, a market bombing there, cars burning, smoke over the city on the evening news, day after day after day, and ratcheted up a notch or two for the weeks before the election” has worked.
Steyn laments that while GOP strategists explain the election loss as historically normal for a president’s sixth year, “that's not how it was seen around the world, either in the chancelleries of Europe, where they're dancing conga lines, or in the caves of the Hindu Kush, where they would also be dancing conga lines if Mullah Omar hadn't made it a beheading offense.”
In other words, Steyn is asserting that the world’s bad guys are interpreting the election results as a win for them. He feels that everyone throughout the world pretty much sees the Democrats as soft on terror. And there are certainly some elements of the party to live up to that assertion. To bolster that perception, Democrat author Orson Scott Card pleads with Americans in this pre-election article to vote Republican for the sake of the nation’s security.
Card’s article is long and includes partisan attacks, but he also does a good job of laying out the bigger picture strategy of what we need to achieve in the Middle East and why we must not fail in Iraq. Unfortunately, most Americans have little clue about this strategy, because the administration has done a very poor job of clearly articulating it, talking down to Americans rather than talking to them like adults.
But the GOP’s fall from its security perch goes deeper than that. Steyn thinks that Americans have simply gotten bored of the war. They want to pick up the remote and change the channel from what they see as a reality show gone bad. He says that this merely confirms what the bad guys already think about us: that we don’t have the ability to stick with a conflict in the long term.
Steyn writes, “We think we can just call off the game early, and go back home and watch TV. It doesn't work like that. Whatever it started out as, Iraq is a test of American seriousness…. "These Colors Don't Run" is a fine T-shirt slogan, but in reality these colors have spent 40 years running from the jungles of Southeast Asia, the helicopters in the Persian desert, the streets of Mogadishu. ... To add the sands of Mesopotamia to the list will be an act of weakness from which America will never recover.”
I believe the problem lies in fickleness. Americans want a winning strategy. They want to decisively win the war in the Middle East. But Americans are also completely unwilling to accept the incredibly harsh realities of such a war. We would have to kick butt big time, lock down Iraq tighter than a drum, suppress and tightly regulate almost every aspect of life throughout the country, and accept horrendous levels of collateral injuries, damage, and deaths. We’re not willing to do that. So the officials in charge, attempting to implement the will of the American public, try to walk this wobbly line between trying to fight and trying to make nice, doing poorly at both.
In the US, we the people, are the government. Our government officials represent the ambiguous wills of a broad and varied public. Sometimes this can be like Aesop’s fable about the man, the boy, and the donkey; it comes off looking incompetent. We seem incapable of handling a regional conflict with a bunch of punks in a 35-mile radius around Baghdad, let alone manage two major theater wars like we did in WWII. Since the GOP has presided over the current security strategy, they’re the ones that are on the chopping block.
Late in life, Nixon surmised that the president of a free republic could only sustain a foreign war for a relatively short period of time before public sentiment turned against it. Americans want to get on with life. That even happened domestically after the Civil War when Americans wanting to get on with life grew tired of Union troops occupying the South, resulting in the drastic failure of Reconstruction and a century of Jim Crow.
So, in a way I agree with Steyn and Nixon (and even the terrorists) that the American public is willing to handle war and its effects only in the short term unless the enemy is very clearly defined, is containable, and is obviously of immediate danger to us. But we’re also very compassionate. That’s why, after WWII we willingly helped our former enemies for many years.
I suppose the lesson is that if you’re going to war, you’d better hit them fast, completely decimate their ability to fight against you regardless of how inhumane it might seem, and then lock down the situation. Americans will then respond by willingly helping with recovery efforts. What Americans won’t do is put up with seemingly endless and seemingly pointless fighting, or reconstruction efforts that lack good progress.
None of this bodes well for a long-term strategy in the Middle East that will ensure national security. Just keeping on doing what we’re doing might turn out OK in the long run (say 20 years), but it’s no quick fix. And although General Abizaid testified differently before the Senate yesterday (see here), it’s debatable about whether it will even work out in the long run. Turning tail and running away is more insane than staying and continuing our current strategy. Americans want to win, but we lack the will to do what it takes to win.
Most people chuck the whole blame on the shoulders of the politicians, but the politicians are simply trying to carry out the messages the public sends them, so I put the problem back on the shoulders of us, the American people. I have no clue where the next two years will take us. I wish I could be more optimistic about this, but we largely deserve the government we get.