Weak speech

>> Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lyndon Johnson saving the Democrats from Republican slogansI'm not surprised: the Republican party is using an idiot's failed attempt to blow up his crotch (and the airplane the crotch was traveling in) to attack the Democratic President Of The United States. Apparently, the fact that the President took a few days to personally address the situation, and perhaps the fact it happened at all, is Really Unbearably Awful and a sign of how Democrats are weak on defense and weak in the supposed "War On Terror" (it's still a meaningless phrase, no matter how often it's repeated) and so on and so forth, ad nauseum. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney made the ludicrous statement, "[President Obama] is trying to pretend we are not at war," which seems to sort of lead one to puzzle over exactly why Mr. Obama just sent all those troops to Afghanistan, where there's actually, you know, a real war going on, remember?

Here's what's probably not going to be said by the mainstream media nor by the Democrats in their own defense: the GOP's rhetoric on this matter is part of a tradition of historic irresponsibility on the part of the Republican party, and endangers American lives.

No, seriously. And here's why:

The historic fact of the last century is that the Democrats were the War Party: every major war this country was involved in and the majority of the minor wars the United States got into, the United States was led into war by Democrats, sometimes with heavy Republican opposition:

Occupation Of Veracruz: Woodrow Wilson (D)
World War I: Woodrow Wilson (D)
American North Russia Expeditionary Force Campaign: Woodrow Wilson (D)
World War II: Franklin Roosevelt (D)
The Korean War: Harry Truman (D)
The Vietnam War: John Kennedy (D)/Lyndon Johnson (D)*
Operation Urgent Fury (Granada): Ronald Reagan (R)
Operation Just Cause (Panama): George H.W. Bush (R)
The Gulf War: George H.W. Bush (R)
The Kosovo Conflict: George H.W. Bush (R)/William Clinton (D)**
Somalia: William Clinton (D)

(I think that list is reasonably complete, perhaps overly-so, since I included Granada.)

That's the historic reality; the political reality is that since the middle of the 20th Century, Republican rhetoric has been that the Democrats are "soft" on national defense, notwithstanding, for instance, Democrat presidents leading the United States into two World Wars over the objections of Republican isolationists.

The watershed year for Republican rhetoric was 1949, the year a popular and well-organized communist movement led by Mao Zedong drove the last forces of the incompetent Kuomintang (KMT) regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek out of mainland China. The Chiang regime had been a darling of American politicians, especially within the Republican party, and the United States had poured startling sums of money and materiel into Generalissimo Chiang's regime in spite of the fact that much of it ended up in the hands of regional warlords who were outside Chiang's faltering control or even in the hands of Mao's Chinese Communist Party (CCP), captured from poorly-supported KMT forces or diverted with the help of corrupt KMT officials. China was a lost cause, at least under Chiang, but Chiang (and his American-educated wife) was personally popular with members of the United States Congress and powerful conservative media figures like Henry Luce. Given that American politicians refused to acknowledge that Chiang was a vulnerable leader, that Chiang's administration was riddled with corruption, and that the Chinese Communist movement was well-led and had made itself popular with the lower classes, the only "logical" conclusion was that the collapse of the KMT regime on the Chinese mainland must be the result of an American failure of resolve in dealing with the menace of Soviet Russia (further ignoring, of course, that the USSR and CCP had a tense-at-best relationship and that the CCP accepted Soviet money and materiel willingly but not gratefully or graciously--border conflicts through the '50s and '60s between the USSR and People's Republic Of China (PRC) would escalate to a brief shooting war by 1969).

The charge that the Democrats were soft on communism stung at home, and drove much of domestic politics through the fifties and sixties. Dangerously so: Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were both members of Congress (JFK in the House, LBJ in the Senate) when the Chinese mainland fell and Republicans seized upon the opportunity to make political capital out of it, and were (of course) in Congress when President Harry Truman was accused of providing insufficient military and moral support when PRC-supported North Korean forces invaded South Korea; a decade later, when, as presidents, JFK and LBJ were faced with the "expansion of international communism" on the Indochinese peninsula, they surely remembered the bitter debates of the Korean War and "Who Lost China?" campaign waged in the press and election years of 1950 and 1952. The fact that the United States became entangled in the Vietnam War after President Dwight Eisenhower left office can be directly attributed to the fact that the Democrats in office in the 1960s were sensitive to a domestic environment in which Republicans could make political capital out of accusing Democrats of weakness--it is possible, I would say even likely, that John Kennedy and certainly Lyndon Johnson would have evaluated their military options differently had they been unafraid of their party appearing "weak."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republican charge that Democrats were soft on communism was necessarily transmuted to a charge that Democrats were soft in general--a charge that has been repeated so thoroughly and often that it's become a part of the conventional wisdom even though it's historically inaccurate. It even remains a viable charge in places where you would think cognitive dissonance would cause somebody's head to explode--the idiots at Conservipedia, for instance, accuse Democrats of being "ambivalent about terrorism and insufficiently patriotic" while simultaneously implying that the Democrats are warmongers.

The danger in this accusation is that it creates a political calculus wherein the party on the defensive--in this case, the Democratic Party--has an interest in escalating military responses for the sole purpose of rebutting the allegation of weakness. To use the Vietnam example, at least one reason LBJ was convinced that the United States couldn't afford to "lose" in Vietnam was the effect that such a loss would have on Democrats running for national office, including his own chances of being re-elected as President. (Conversely, and ironically, this also means the accusing party--in this case, the Republican Party--has little to lose in losing a war--it took a Republican, Richard Nixon, to abandon Vietnam.) The major problem with this political calculus, unfortunately, is that while it counts votes, it doesn't count American lives--i.e. the lives and health of the soldiers, sailors and pilots who actually have to go and get themselves shot at for appearances' sake. (Nor, while we're at it, does a count of voters at home necessarily consider the costs in wealth or to foreign opinion--the latter being something we need, notwithstanding the George W. Bush administration's feelings that America can somehow exist on an international stage without needing anything from any other nations.)

Dick Cheney is in charge of exactly jack shit these days, so the fact that he can influence less-thoughtful American voters by making an empty accusation of weakness is not something he has to give much thought to, though it would certainly be moral of him to think about whether such accusations are likely to provoke extreme attempts by Democrats to deflect the accusations with actions that may endanger American lives or liberty. The behavior of Mr. Cheney and others of similar ilk is amoral, not because it's partisan, but because it's thoughtless and fails to consider what ought to be an anticipated consequence of said behavior.

There are, of course, ways to criticize the President Of The United States and/or the Democrats; and it is more than fair for Mr. Cheney et al. to engage in thoughtful critiques. One way to do so might be to offer up alternatives that don't undermine the President's credibility in a way that may provoke the President to do something rash and awful--Mr. Cheney might say, for instance, "The President ought to do x to buttress our national security," rather than Mr. Cheney's preferred, "Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war?"--a statement that is inflammatory and false (the President has referred to America being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan). And if Mr. Cheney actually cared about America in a meaningful way, he'd do that; I suspect Mr. Cheney would say he cares about America if you asked him, but the reality is that he cares about his party more, however he rationalizes it by telling himself that what's good for Republicans is good for America.

Republicans have the same rights as anyone else in this country to exercise their freedom of speech in nearly any way they see fit, of course--there are few prohibitions on what they may say, and if they aren't using "fighting words" or shouting "fire" in movie theatres or spreading obscenity, they otherwise may say or publish what they will. "Can" and "ought," however, remain different things entirely, and the fact that Republicans can accuse Democrats of "weakness" doesn't mean they should. Unfortunately, I fully expect that rather than engage the public with thoughtful statements about what they think should be done differently, or even supportive statements about what they think might be done the same, the Republicans instead will engage in meaningless but dangerous statements that will continue the political calculus of Democrats feeling obligated to prove they're as tough-or-tougher-than the next guy.

Even if it kills someone.

*Vietnam is, of course, complicated, and readers may note that the Eisenhower administration (R) provided substantial foreign aid to the French and, later, the South Vietnamese, as well as the first American military and intelligence "advisors" on the ground. On the other hand, the Eisenhower administration was notably reluctant to involve American ground troops for combat purposes, and the JFK and LBJ administrations are credited with the escalation of American participation in the war and it's more than fair to call it "LBJ's war."

**Again, history is never simple: the first troops to Kosovo were ordered by President George H.W. Bush in December, 1992, but the war is mainly associated with President Clinton, who took office the following month.

EDIT: Looking at the list of American military campaigns, I realize I somehow omitted the first Gulf War--not on purpose, it was on my mind while I was trying to make sure I had accurate dates on Kosovo, and it just slipped away from me. My bad.

In the course of adding Gulf I, I noticed that I'd also omitted two of Woodrow Wilson's "forgotten" campaigns, the American Expeditionary Force incursion into Russia during the Revolution there, and Wilson's invasion of Mexico. The latter is an especially egregious oversight on my part--Wilson's Mexico policy was absolutely appalling and an example of the kinds of historical misconduct we Americans routinely forget about, only to be puzzled when foreigners who remember our history better than we do don't like us or suspect our motives. President Wilson, perceiving Mexico (then in the throes of the Mexican Revolution) as a failed state, used a semi-comical misunderstanding between a group of American sailors and Mexican revolutionaries as a justification for sending Marines to invade and occupy Veracruz--quasi-legally bypassing Congressional approval, meanwhile. (He did, at least, ask before he sent the Marines in--but then ordered them in before Congress could get back to him).

We tend to forget our war with Mexico, but it poisoned our relations with one of our two nearest neighbors for most of the 20th Century, and the occupation of Veracruz was at least as significant as, say, the occupation of Granada under a Republican.

If I've overlooked another notable American war of the 20th Century, feel free to let me know, and I'll add it (or explain why it doesn't count).


Jim Wright Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:02:00 PM EST  

Goddamnit all to hell, Eric, you bastard.

I guess I'll just post a link to this post INSTEAD OF FINISHING THE FUCKING EXACT SAME POST I was writing on Stonekettle Station.


Seriously, damned well said. Damned well.

David Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:36:00 PM EST  

I totally almost missed the Grenada conflict. I think I was brushing my teeth.

Jim Wright Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:46:00 PM EST  

You might want to mention the Cuban Missile Crisis as well, Kennedy could have let the Soviets leave those missile in place, instead he risked all and faced them down. Of course, he being a sissy liberal democrat, knew nothing of war or courage or herosim. Nothing.

Eric Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:53:00 PM EST  

Thanks, Jim, for the praise and also for the suggestion.

The CMC is one I'll have to think about--the naval blockade counts as a show of military force, but a shooting war was avoided (as was an actual occupation of sovereign foreign territory, which would be where the AEF Siberian campaign counts--or maybe I'm counting them just because I detest Woodrow Wilson).

Eric Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 3:58:00 PM EST  

After fact-checking myself, I've revised the reference to the Siberian campaign to include the broader American campaign in Russia, which did see combat action. Some might consider the Allied campaign in Russia to be part of WWI, although it continued well past Armistice.

Nathan Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 8:56:00 PM EST  

I take your point, but of all the things that concern me, worrying that Obama will feel pressured to prove he's as tough as the next guy isn't high on my list.

When Janet Napolitano tried to say that "everything worked right", I got the feeling she thought she was working for the previous administration...the one that could never acknowledge fault in anything. Then Obama came out and acknowledged that there had been a "systematic failure"...which was...ya'know, uh, true. (OTOH, it's also true that much of the failure took place on foreign soil under the watch of...foreigners.)

Truth be told, I don't necessarily see added security measures as the answer, but possibly installing TSA at foreign airports. You wanna board a flight heading to the U.S.? Pass through our security. And if foreign airports don't want our people in their terminals, fine...cancel those routes.

Warner (aka ntsc) Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 8:03:00 AM EST  

You left out the banana wars, as I understand to preserve the profitability of United Fruit and what I think is labeled on tombstones as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I think that DoD had to order taller tombstones to fit these names on, my father's WWII pale in comparison.

Warner (aka ntsc) Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 8:04:00 AM EST  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 12:01:00 PM EST  

Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom were omitted as 21st-Century wars, but good call on the "Banana Wars", though I don't know how to catalogue them; to the extent they trace back to the Spanish-American War (omitted because it was a 19th-Century war, natch), they don't quite count, but as American occupations extending until the Hoover (R) and FDR (D) administrations, they do.

What makes it difficult in considering them in this context is that they represent ongoing occupations/military policies--i.e. while Hoover or Harding (R) might be faulted for continuing American colonialist policies, so could Wilson (D) and (until 1934) FDR; and yet that's not quite the same as whether they rightly or wrongly "led the nation to war."

The most important thing, however, is to remember these wars and these American actions, so thank you for the reminder, Warner. It's important to remember them not so we can thwack ourselves on the head about our past--which is the way some conservative pundits act when these things are brought up, like the only point is to badmouth America--but because the present is an inevitable outgrowth of the past and we are, inevitably, responsible for the sins of our fathers whether we like it or not. If South and Latin American governments are suspicious of our motives, this history is the reason, and our obligation to rectify what we can if we can.

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