The Cultural Meaning of Defense Policy

By Mike Dorf

My latest Verdict column asks whether there is an emerging "Obama Doctrine" regarding the use of military force.  I say there is, and that it emphasizes air power, drone strikes, and special operations, rather than boots on the ground.  That much strikes me as largely uncontroversial, simply an extrapolation from recent events.  I also discuss some of the costs and benefits of the Obama Doctrine, as well as legal questions it raises.

Here I want to focus a little bit of attention on an issue the column raises in passing: The tendency of right-wing commentators to portray Obama differently, as dangerously multilateralist and uninterested in using force to defend U.S. national interests.  I give as an example an article by Douglas Feith and Seth Cropsey.  Readers will recall that Feith, the architect of much that went wrong in American war policy under President Bush, was described by General Tommy Franks as "the dumbest fucking guy on the planet," a characterization that strikes me as unfair.  Feith is arguably a war criminal, but he is not stupid.  In any event, I use the Feith/Cropsey article as only one example of a general phenomenon.  As noted last week on the Daily Show, a wide array of conservative pundits have sought to portray the Obama Administration's success in Libya as failure, often using the same trope as Feith and Cropsey: Obama is basically weak on defense, and so any examples of strength must be minimized.

To some extent, this is simply partisanship.  Republicans who more or less accused Democrats of treason when the latter questioned military operations initiated by Republican Presidents have questioned the legality of Democratic-initiated military operations, like Clinton's use of force in Kosovo and Obama's in Libya.  And the second half of that equation, in my view, is probably a good thing: The general tendency of Congress is to go along with whatever use of force the President attempts, so even hypocritical resistance to a President's desire to use force in international relations can serve as an important check on the White House.

Moreover, some Republicans are genuinely opposed to most American overseas military adventures.  As Sam Tanenhaus noted in yesterday's NY Times, there once was a robust isolationist wing of the Republican Party.  Pat Buchanan tried to speak for it during his ill-fated fifteen minutes of fame in the early 1990s and lately Ron Paul has been the standard bearer for a revival of right-wing isolationism.  Meanwhile, the likes of Arianna Huffington have been arguing since around 2006 that the doves-on-the-left/hawks-on-the-right assumption is increasingly outdated.  And indeed, as the nation tired first of the Iraq war and has now tired of the Afghanistan war, it does look like there's no political angle in militarism.

But to my mind--and as Tanenhaus essentially says--rumors of the demise of Republicans trying to portray Democrats as weak on defense are greatly exaggerated.  Roughly since the 1972 Presidential election, when anti-war activists came to be associated with the Democratic Party (rather than opposing the policy of both parties), Republicans have been claiming to be strong on defense partly as a cultural marker: They want to distance themselves, the "real Americans," from the sorts of people thought to oppose military adventures overseas.  Thousands of "Support Our Troops--Bring Them Home" bumper stickers have not dislodged the idea for conservative voters that those who oppose war or even particular wars are in some sense anti-American.

Perhaps some day that connection will be broken, but not this election cycle.  Running against Obama, who is already "other-ized" by much of the Republican base, Republicans will continue to allege that he is weak, evidence be damned.  Characterizing Obama as weak serves as a kind of deep code for the claim that Obama is not truly American.  This will not likely be a dominant theme in the 2012 election, which will almost certainly turn on the economy, but if a recovery is seen as picking up steam a year from now, look for  a flurry of otherwise perplexing ads and statements describing Obama as reluctant to use force to defend American interests and values.