For years I have read progressives complaining about the Democratic “defensive crouch” on national security, that instinctive, fearful huddling that entails caving all major points of disagreement with the opposing party in order to appear “credible” and “serious” on this issue. We saw the defensive crouch most recently in the surrender on new FISA legislation, which a surprisingly large number of Democrats told themselves was a good “compromise,” and of course we saw it most completely in the authorization of the Iraq war and both the authorization and reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act. Both for reasons of political positioning and genuine conviction, hawkish conservative (often Southern) Democrats and some, but not all, neoliberals took up positions that were deemed more pro-“defense” and pro-military, and they showed a greater willingness to use force overseas. The Gulf War in ’91 was the great chastening of the Democratic politicians who did not go along with this new hawkishness, and those who did were rewarded with dominance in the party. Overwhelming U.S. military superiority, a Democratic administration, and the re-emergence of humanitarian interventionism (spurred on in the wake of Rwanda) all combined to bring many progressives to support various deployments and small wars around the world. An activist foreign policy became the attempted inoculation against the charge that Democrats were “weak” on defense and when it came to handling foreign threats. The zenith of this hawkish liberalism, which was the same as the nadir of progressivism, came in the years 2001-03, and in spite of having rolled over for virtually every piece of antiterrorist legislation and for the Iraq war the Democratic leadership still found itself being painted with the same old colors.
Though it was not limited to them, Howard Dean and the netroots typified the disgusted Democratic reaction against the results of this. Dean was an odd tribune of antiwar sentiment as a fairly conventional “centrist” Democrat, but when the main rivals in the Democratic primaries were all Senators who had voted for the war resolution he became the natural outlet for many frustrated progressive voters and donors. However, as I mentioned earlier, Dean was still in favor of most interventions and was particularly outspoken in talking up the perceived threat from Iran. Overcoming the “defensive crouch” with respect to Iraq seemed to require embracing equally or more hawkish positions on everything else, and so the fundamental Democratic Party posture remained one of cowering and shielding itself from the inevitable attacks that were going to come. Obama has essentially been following in this same tradition: opposed to the war in Iraq, but otherwise in favor of a very active role in the world up to and including new military engagements and very keen to declare his support for military action in places other than Iraq by the U.S. and allied militaries. So when progressives listen to Obama’s answers on foreign policy, they tend to cringe because they recognize perfectly well that Obama sounds just like the opposition on most issues related to U.S. policies abroad. They complain that Obama is being too imitative and passive, but the very thing that makes them cringe is also what has made it possible for them to muster any significant political opposition to the Iraq war without falling into the GOP stereotype of the weak, naive Democrat. If they were not cringing at Obama’s answers on Iran and Russia, they would still be stuck with the likes of Kerry defensively crouching and trying to prove that he was a better manager of an unjust war. To more thoroughly antiwar and non-interventionist observers, Obama’s views are completely unacceptable, but it is important to understand that he is operating in a party that was as recently as four years in thrall to Iraq war supporters and the mentality that said that the war was necessary but just poorly-managed.