The 1960s New Left thought “Ain’t gonna study war no more” was a good idea and a clever slogan. It was neither. It was a way of admitting in public that they were entering a phase of willful ignorance.
Bill Clinton won the 1992 election in part with a slogan that said “It’s the economy, stupid.” If he and his party said “Ain’t gonna study the economy no more” they would have gone nowhere.
I haven’t heard that silly 60s slogan in a while, but I see the effects of it constantly. Some intellectuals on the left (both pro- and anti-war) do take national security seriously. You’ll find them writing for publications like Dissent and The New Republic, but you won’t find them many other places.
So I’m happy to see that at least some people on the soft left understand this. Here is Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly.
If Democrats are going to engage in navel gazing, our gaze really ought to be directed toward the one topic we continue to avoid like the plague: becoming more credible on national security. That’s where Kerry and the Dems lost the election. Like it or not — and I can almost hear the outrage brewing already in the comment section over the mere fact that I’m mentioning this — fighting terrorism is the major swing issue of the day, and perceived Democratic weakness toward terrorism is likely to remain our biggest electoral albatross for quite a while.
He then pointed to this article, published two years ago, by Heather Hurlburt. How refreshing it is to read an article like this from a member of the anti-war left.
Democrats are in this position precisely because we respond to matters of war politically, tactically. We worry about how to position ourselves so as not to look weak, rather than thinking through realistic, sensible Democratic principles on how and when to employ military force, and arguing particular cases, such as Iraq, from those principles. There are a lot of reasons for this failure, including the long-time split within the party between hawks and doves. But we will never resolve that split, nor regain credibility with voters on national security, until we learn to think straight about war. And we will never learn to think straight about war until this generation of professional Democrats overcomes its ignorance of and indifference to military affairs.
The reasons for this apathy aren’t hard to discern. Many Democrats who came of age during the Vietnam War retain a gut-level distrust of the military. Younger staffers, who may not carry the same psychological baggage, have few mentors urging them toward military or security issues. I speak from experience: My main qualification for my first Washington job–covering European security for Congress–was that I could locate the Warsaw Pact countries on a map and correctly identify the acronyms of the relevant international organizations.
But lack of expertise is only a symptom. The malady is an irresponsible lack of interest. The issues that drive most contemporary Democrats into politics are reproductive rights, health care, fiscal policy, or poverty, not national security. Even those young Democrats who are interested in foreign affairs tend to be drawn to “soft” subjects such as debt relief and human rights. Aspiring foreign policy wonks will often get pulled into military affairs by way of, say, their work on demining. But when these young people visualize exciting jobs in the next Democratic administration, they think State Department, not Pentagon.
After Vietnam, the old Cold War liberalism no longer seemed credible to the party’s core and to many of its leaders. Many Democratic officeholders and operatives responded by focusing on those foreign policy issues that they and their base were comfortable with, such as human rights and arms control, while others shied away from international policy altogether and focused on domestic issues. At the same time, most Democrats understood that a reputation for being “soft” on defense issues was a serious political liability. But instead of grappling with the substance of war and national security, Democrats began to approach their vulnerability as a problem of tactics and political positioning.
Without the White House, the Democrats had no institutional or organized way to think through national security issues. The Georgetown salons–like those Madeleine Albright held to nurture Democratic foreign policy in the dark days of the 1980s–had dissolved. And although plenty of Democrats populate foreign policy think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institution, such above-the-fray outfits are no match for aggressively conservative institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The latter two are known today as the places where the current Bush hawks, formerly members of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, sharpened their critical knives during the 1990s. Unlike their mainstream equivalents, the national security programs at Heritage and AEI exist not so much to contribute ideas to the public square as to influence very specific policies and legislation on defense. Democrats have no equivalent. As Evelyn Farkas, a Democratic staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee, puts it, “Part of the reason we don’t have a clear message on defense is that we don’t have a place where people argue and create one for us.”
Getting Democrats to take defense issues seriously will not be easy; it means changing the party’s basic mode of thinking. But it can be done. After all, it took less than a decade for Democrats to go from being the party of deficits to being the party more trusted for fiscal responsibility. This transformation happened because enough Democrats got tired of losing elections and did the hard work of crafting innovative and effective ideas in areas like crime and economic stewardship that the party had previously ceded to Republicans. National defense is perhaps the last big area where Democrats have not really done this. And in a time of war, it’s the one area where they can’t afford not to.
This is exactly right. It is possible to be some kind of anti-Bush lefty and write thoughtful books and articles about national security without being a backseat heckler who opposes but offers no alternate vision. Paul Berman has managed to do it. But he labors away in an inhospitable left-wing environment that hardly has any room for him. For someone like me who doesn’t have a lifetime’s worth of street cred in the lefty press, I’m all but forced to play in the right’s sandbox whether I like it or not. (But I don’t dislike it as much as I did, and that’s bad news for the Democrats. An entire genre of intellectuals like me exists and has a name — neoconservatives – because mine is all-too common a storyline.)
These kinds of problems are self-reinforcing. The fewer intellectuals there are on the left who study military history and strategy, the less likely any otherwise left-minded person who is interested in such things will want or be able to work with or for liberals and Democrats. What has been happening is a nation-wide brain-drain from the left to the right — at least in certain areas.
I have a sinking feeling things will remain this way in the future to the horizon. Come on, Dems. Prove me wrong, would you please?
UPDATE: Texan Thucydides weighs in:
Listening to neo-conservative voices is important for Democrats, because contrary to popular belief, these people used to be liberals. This constituency should be a natural member of the Democratic coalition. They believe in a moral foreign policy that is driven by values instead of cold, hard, Realism.These are the intellectual heirs to the Scoop Jackson Democrats. The reason they left the Democratic Party is because we lost credibility on foreign policy issues when we decided to embrace the Marxist worldview as our primary ordering principle in the late 1960’s. Should we bring them back into the fold, we’ll be a majority party once more.
And Totten is right, we can’t fake this. It can’t just be an electoral ploy, we need a whole new series of serious democratic think tanks, focused on influencing policy. We can start in the Senate, where we have serious Democratic politicians who will be receptive to serious ways of thinking on foreign policy. They just need to be willing to take a leadership role and stand up to the liberal establishment. After a thorough defeat at the polls, now’s the time.