Scoblete correctly observes that this Frances Townsend statement on Yemen is mostly evidence of partisan opportunism rather than hawkishness as such. However, I agree with Yglesias that out-party partisans regularly make reckless hawkish statements as a way of attacking the other party’s President. It is easy, it seems to have no downside, and it positions the opposition as being “tougher” on national security, which seems to be advantageous almost every cycle. We can understand most Republican criticism of the war in Afghanistan as another expression of this. If Obama more right than wrong on Afghanistan by hawkish standards, he must be failing in Iran or, in this case, Yemen. Naturally, the critics’ answer is either to fault Obama for attempting to do something in Afghanistan or to demand that far more be done in (or to) Iran or Yemen,. or perhaps both.
Like Yglesias, I have been reading Prof. Zelizer’s Arsenal of Democracy, about which I will have more to say in the future, and one thing that has been consistently true over the last sixty years is the fairly regular reliance of the opposition party on outdoing the President’s party in dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric on matters of national security. It is almost always true that this rhetoric is excessively hawkish in one way or another, but it is always a qualified or targeted hawkishness. If the President’s party is sufficiently aggressive in one area, the opposition accuses them of neglecting “more important” national security concerns. Even Obama’s campaign partook of this to a limited degree in emphasizing the importance of Afghanistan against Iraq, but for the most part wisely decided to tap into the public’s weariness with aggressive and combative postures. If the President’s party seems reluctant to intervene the opposition will bash him as timid. This has been the tactic of Obama’s opponents with respect to Iran policy, and now we are hearing the same about Yemen.
To get out from under the legacy of the Korean debacle, Democratic leaders by the late ’50s were obsessing over a (non-existent) missile gap. Even though Eisenhower and Nixon had won and retained office on the basis of an insane “rollback” strategy, they exposed themselves to such hawkish attacks from Democrats by governing far more responsibly than they had campaigned. They were suffering the consequences of using national security against the party of Truman, and in the end lost out to the rhetorically more aggressive anticommunist in Kennedy. The trouble is that this rhetoric can have debilitating effects on the party in power. Zelizer makes a persuasive case that one of the causes of LBJ’s decision to escalate in Vietnam was his fear of being accused of permitting another “loss” like the “loss” of China.
Zelizer shows clearly that out-party hawkishness combined with proposals to minimize the public’s direct costs from military intervention usually lead to political rewards. Thus Nixon could run and win as a Vietnam hawk who opposed the draft. He opposed the draft because he wanted to create political space to conclude the war later. Perversely, the end of conscription, undoubtedly a good thing, created the long-term political conditions that made interventionist foreign policy politically viable. The outcome of the Gulf War reinforced this. The main idea of what Zelizer calls conservative internationalism is the maintainence of an activist posture abroad while limiting direct American exposure to combat and risk.
One of the complaints one would often see made against Bush was that he did not call on the public to sacrifice for the war effort, which was of course exactly what he would never want to do. The idea is to make waging war and interfering overseas as relatively costless to the public as possible, which makes mobilizing political opposition to interventionism far more difficult. This is another way in which the “surge” was aimed more at eliminating political problems for the administration at home than it was intended to resolve difficult Iraqi political disagreements. Even if the public remained overwhelmingly against the war after the “surge” ended, the decreased violence and reduced casualties made opposition to the war less urgent, less focused and less politically potent.
This applies to fiscal costs as well. Cheney could claim indifference to deficits, for example, not necessarily because he was indifferent to fiscal recklessness, but because he never wanted to make voters feel the pinch of the fiscal cost of the wars. The alliance between tax-cutters and militarists at first seems absurd, but then you realize that it is the sustained resistance to paying for the wars up front that makes the launching of wars more politically possible. It is not because Republican militarists otherwise loathe all government that they oppose higher taxes, but because higher taxes make it more difficult for them to succeed in advancing militaristic policies. Like so many others, they want the government to do things without having to pay for it, because they suspect that the public would not really consider the expense necessary if they had to pay for it right now.