Thursday, November 16, 2006

National Security Attention Deficit Disorder

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.


Jettboy said...

Nothing to do with your actual post, but I really like the new look.

Carry on.

Jettboy said...

Actually, I do have a comment. Is there any info. on public opinions of WWII? I suppose it wasn't that long of a war when the United States was fighting, but there were thousands of deaths at times per battle. Has the U.S. lost the will to fight or did it ever have it?

Jeff said... ~ The Wiki of the Revolution ~ The Wiki of the Revolution ~ The Wiki of the Revolution ~ The Wiki of the Revolution

Charles D said...

Fickleness is not the issue. Quickness of the war is also not the issue. The lesson we need to learn is that we should not initiate wars against nations that pose no threat to the United States. We failed to learn that lesson in Vietnam so we are taking the remedial course in Iraq.

What our politicians need to do is redefine National Security as making sure the nation is safe (Doh). That means using our "Defense" Department to defend America, not to invade and try to occupy random nations because of stupid theories of our "national interest".

If we want to be safe, we should bring Al Qaeda to justice and those who funded and protected them. Instead, we are playing right into their hands and helping them recruit more disaffected Islamic fundamentalists to their ranks. If this is what either party thinks is a national security strategy, we are in deep trouble.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jettboy, thanks. I've wanted to update the look for a little while.

I believe there are several reasons we had widespread public support of WWII. (There were detractors, but they were a small minority.)

For starters, there was clear and present danger to our homeland of serious attacks by foreign states. We stayed out of the war much longer than was wise, but when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor openly, it made us wake up and see what we were up against. We immediately declared war on both Japan and Germany. Both were clearly identifiable states with malicious intentions.

For another, we went into WWII in big fashion. There was nothing minimalist about it. Almost every person in the nation was impacted by either serving in the military or having a loved one serve. We knew that meant lots of body bags, but we accepted it as the cost of doing what needed to be done. Americans at home stepped up to the plate and made many personal sacrifices for the war effort. We were all in it together.

We also had excellent wartime propaganda. Every communication channel was used to constantly pump people up. MSM was largely patriotic and supplied a great deal of overt and between-the-lines support for the effort. Not all of this was propaganda, but few were interested in the opposing point of view.

The U.S. definitely had the will to fight and to see it through. Have we lost that? Some have argued that our full-color immediate media exposure to the hell of war has impacted our will to accept war. I think there is some validity in that argument, but I don't think that the will to fight has been completely subsumed.

While I don't agree with all of the left spin Democracy Lover puts on it, DL makes some valid points. I believe that if Americans perceive a clear and present threat of significant attacks on our homeland by a clearly identifiable enemy state, they will have little compunction about doing what needs to be done to take that threat out in a decisive manner.

A war against an ideology that is embodied in shadowy clandestine groups scattered across the globe is a wholly different matter. The threat is not clear. The enemy is not clear. Our strategy for dealing with the threat is not clear. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't combat the threat. But people have difficulty buying into a strategy they can't comprehend. They don't see immediate results or even what appears to be progress. Few people have the vision of strategy that Orson Scott Card articulates. It hasn't been constantly laid out for them the way our strategy in WWII was laid out for the people.

But regardless of all of that, we must deal with the reality that we are in Iraq now. At Pottery Barn, if you break something, you buy it. What's done in Iraq is done. We are now obligated to fix it. Pulling out troops isn't going to do that.

Charles D said...

The reason people are having a problem understanding the strategy for defeating the "shadowy clandestine groups scattered across the globe" is that we don't appear to have one. The sensible strategy would involve multilateral diplomatic efforts to secure the cooperation of all but the failed states in bringing these groups to justice. We had that opportunity after 9/11 and it was tossed aside in favor of antagonizing states and making it political suicide to cooperate with the US.

At Pottery Barn, they don't expect you to hang around the store and try to glue the broken vase back together. You pay for it and leave. The US cannot "fix" Iraq, the Iraqis will have to do that. What we can and should do is pay for the damage we have done.

Scott Hinrichs said...

DL, you make some very good points, but you are ignoring facts when you insist that there are no terror organizations that are bent on wreaking havoc wherever they can.

Charles D said...

Did I say that? Sure there are terrorists who will always wreak havoc regardless - Timothy McVeigh for example. The crux of the problem is how do we keep the few complete crazies from attracting the large groups of admirers and clandestine funding that permits them to threaten the US?

If we concentrated on the funding sources for terrorists (primarily in Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 group) and worked to isolate them politically by undermining their anti-American message, we would do a great deal more to protect America.

Scott Hinrichs said...

We should definitely be doing precisely what you suggest. But we also have to take care of Iraq. Your assertion that only Iraqis can do this ignores what happened when we pulled out of Vietnam. The bad guys crushed our allies and murdered millions of them. There is no way to morally justify this debacle.

We must prevent any kind of similar thing from happening in Iraq. I believe it is valid to debate how this can best be achieved, but I believe it must be achieved.

Jettboy said...

"The bad guys crushed our allies and murdered millions of them."

The problem I have with this comparison of Vietnam and Iraq is that in Vietnam we had allies, and in Iraq we don't. Believe it or not, in Vietnam we did know who our friends were - even if we couldn't tell friend and foe apart in the outlying country. I am NOT for leaving Iraq immediately, but I do believe that most Iraqi citizens don't want our help. It might be time to start cutting the imbilical cord.

Many, including myself, worry that leaving will only make things worse for them and for the United States. I agree completely. Ironically, I also think letting things get worse might be the best thing we can do. Even allowing the United States to get attacked by those we are trying to fight over there could be a positive development. At least it might bring people once more to their senses of what we are trying to accomplish over there in the first place.

Charles D said...

I have to agree with Jettboy on the Vietnam comparison.

If you invade and occupy another nation, regardless of your stated rationale, the people of that nation are highly likely to resent you. Those of their countrymen that cooperate with the occupier are almost always seen as traitors by the fellow countrymen.

This is a natural and unavoidable consequence of invading other countries and occupying them. The best way to avoid this problem is NOT TO INVADE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!

NonArab-Arab said...

Neither Orson Scott Card, nor George W. Bush, nor Harry Reid, nor Barack Obama, nor John Murtha, nor Hillary Clinton, nor any other US politician or commentator I have heard from has the first idea what anyone in the Middle East is saying or doing. As someone who actually follows the debate as it's occurring in Arabic, I just don't even know where to begin to comment. Here's the reality: what you all are debating, and what we debate in the United States bears no resemblance to the reality in the Middle East and vice versa. Washington and Pentagon shenanigans, US troops from Peoria and Orem writing home about the "reality" they see, none of these in any way resemble even the *questions* people are grappling with in Iraq and the Middle East, let alone the answers. That gap will remain. American Liberals and Conservatives, Mormons, atheists, born-agains, etc. will continue to debate meaningless issues, meanwhile Iraq will slip further and further into the anarchy our invasion triggered, and twenty or thirty years from now we'll be looking back on this thing scratching our heads saying "what in the world were we thinking" but no more able to answer the question then than we are now. The occasional church leader will make a statement as has occurred already which people on this and that side of the divide will take as divine proof they are right, but in reality things will remain as clear as mud for American Mormons as for everyone else.

You wanna figure this thing out? Learn Arabic. Can't do that? At least go talk to some actual Arabs. A lot of them, they have bazillions of partisan, diverging opinions among themselves as well and you'll never get "the truth" from any one Arab any more than you will from one American. Then have some humility and realize that if they haven't got it figured out, how in the world did we ever think we could come in and slap-dash drop the solutions right on their heads (sometimes literally as well as figuratively)?

We have stepped into a world we as a nation can't even fathom, let alone transform into whatever the heck it is we were trying to transform it into. This ain't no "good war", every side is dirty as they come, even as every side (falsely) claims ritual purity.

Scott Hinrichs said...

NA-A: I appreciate your take on this matter. You state that the problems are much greater than either side comprehends. But you also seem to suggest that there are no real world solutions to the problems. That sounds pretty hopeless. Perhaps you are right, but I have difficulty accepting the concept that no one can positively change anything in the situation.

NonArab-Arab said...

I am hopeless only in the sense that now enough sins have been committed that certain consequences are inevitable. The serial adulterer has to be excommunicated before they can properly get back on the path of repentance, right? Same principle here. The US invasion was always a disaster waiting to happen (as I told people even a year before it was launched), subsequent errors made it even worse. There was - contrary to what most Americans think - hope of Iraq improving under Saddam. And there is hope today as well, but things have gone so far down the road now, that like an addict who needs to "hit bottom" first, Iraq now has to go through the worst of a civil war before it can get better again.

We may think we are well-intentioned with all our talk of freedom and democracy (and making Israel safe - which goes down *really* bad in Iraq where Israel is seen as the worst Apartheid state in the world and not a beacon of democracy), but when your primary concern for the day is not getting mortared in your living room, gunned down by a US humvee driving to work and then arrested and thrown in jail with no charges for a year, or your sister kidnapped and raped going to kindergarten...well, it's kind of hard to believe that the country that triggered all that stuff could care less about you. And in any case you've now got much bigger worries if you are to survive. I highly recommend the writings of Nir Rosen on Iraq to get a sense of it, his latest is here:

Bottom line for me is there is hope, but to understand what that hope is, first we have to get our heads out of the sand. Step one for us as Americans (and as Mormons who frequently seek theological justification to try and square American good intentions with military actions our family members - including mine - are often a part of) is step one of the repentance process: acknowledge we've done wrong. Maybe we can't understand what exactly we've just done, but we can recognize we've done wrong, we can recognize that every day we're making a bad situation worse, and we can go on to step two: stop committing the sin (i.e., get out of Iraq). Then Iraq will suffer even more badly, but better to get it over with as quickly as possible than drag it out for decades. That sounds pretty cold and callous, but then sometimes my Bishop seemed pretty harsh at the time, but I needed it. When that phase passes, Iraq will stumble to its feet and find a way forward. America will need to have some humility and pay back the hundreds of billions of dollars of damage we've done to the country. The lives we've taken and caused to be taken by the consequences of our actions can not be returned, but a humble "I'm sorry, how can I help" would mean a lot if it is genuine (it can never be genuine when the hand of friendship has to be extended over an M-16).

Hope yes, but to get to hope, we need to understand our responsibilities first.