With President Bush's approval rating hovering around 30%, and public dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq running high, the Democrats and their allies in the MSM are feeling their oats. In fact, some have openly suggested that Democrats make foreign policy the centerpiece of their campaign strategy in 2008. Following their logic, Iraq has become such a liability for the GOP that it makes the Democrats look competent by comparison.
Jennifer Rubin lays out the case for a foreign policy-focused campaign in the latest issue of the New York Observer. Rubin begins her piece by noting that John F. Kennedy ran successfully on the "missile gap" in 1960 against Richard Nixon. As a former Congressman, Senator and two-term Vice-President, Mr. Nixon had more foreign policy experience than Kennedy. But JFK's charge that the USSR had more ICBMs than the U.S. resonated with voters, and Ms. Rubin believes it carried Mr. Kennedy to victory.
Rubin's analysis is flawed on a number of levels, beginning with her claims about a "missile gap." Fact is, there was a missile gap in 1960, but it was in our favor, not the Soviet Union's. Kennedy and his running mate, Lyndon Johnson, were briefed on the actual missile balance between the United States and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1960s, but both perpetuated claims of a gap "claim" (some would call it a bald-faced lie) to further their campaign.
Kennedy also understood that his assertion put the Eisenhower Administration (and his opponent, Mr. Nixon), in a difficult position. Exposing Kennedy's fabrication would mean revealing the full extent of U-2 flights over the Soviet Union, a program that remained shrouded in secrecy, despite the loss of a spy plane (and the capture of pilot Gary Powers) in May, 1960. Only after entering the Oval Office did Kennedy acknowledge the reality of the "gap," and his role in perpetuating the myth. Fred Kaplan recounted a discussion between JFK and his advisors on that subject in the 27 June 2003 edition of Slate:
"There was created a myth in this country that did great harm," he told them. "It was created by, I would say, emotionally guided but nonetheless patriotic individuals in the Pentagon." Calling himself, in a self-deprecating tone, "one of those who put that myth around—a patriotic and misguided man," he said, "I want some research … dig up the record. … Otherwise, what it looks like is we, some of us, distorted the facts and created a myth of the gap that didn't exist."
Readers will note that JFK made no mention of his pre-election briefings from the CIA which revealed the real nature of the gap. Apparently, Mr. Kennedy was quite willing to distort the facts in the heat of a political campaign, and perpetuate the "myth" that supported his presidential ambitions. And not surprisingly, Ms. Rubin ignores these salient facts in hailing Kennedy's "successful" foreign policy platform of 1960. In reality, JFK did provide a template for his party, demonstrating that you can demagogue your way to the White House on foreign policy and national security issues. In terms of truth, it's not much of a jump from Kennedy's "missile gap" claims during the '60 campaign, to Harry Reid's recent assertion that the War in Iraq is "lost."
But beyond JFK's distortions and myths, there are plenty of reasons that Democrats shouldn't make foreign policy and security the centerpiece of next year's campaign. Fact is, their party has a woeful record in those areas, and their plans for "redeploying" from Iraq, fighting terrorism, or confronting North Korea should prompt uncomfortable questions about their past policies in those areas.
Let's begin with North Korea. Three years ago, John Kerry actually tried to hail the 1994 "Agreed To" Framework as some sort of foreign relations coup. "We had inspectors and cameras at Yongbyon," he boasted. Problem was, Pyongyang used the agreement as a pretext for moving their program underground, and continuing the work that led to a nuclear-capable North Korea. The Clinton foreign policy team never insisted on complete verification (beyond the Yongbyon site), and Pyongyang played them for suckers. By comparison, Bush foreign policy efforts have produced a new accord--with the participation of key regional partners, and tougher sanctions that apparently forced Kim Jong-il into an agreement. It is far to early to predict the success of the Bush approach, but its regional approach (and willingness to squeeze Pyongyang) make it superior to the 1994 pact, which gave North Korea food and fuel for its military--and allowed it to continue a clandestine nuclear program, without sanctions.
The issue of terrorism is hardly a winner for Democrats, either. When their party last occupied the White House, Islamic terrorists staged for major attacks against U.S. targets (the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; the strike at Khobar Towers in 1996; the 1998 embassy bombings in east Africa, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole). True, those strikes pale in scope to the events of 9-11, but the earlier attacks are evident of a pattern of indifference neglect that permeated Democratic foreign policy in the 1990s. By failing to respond to those initial strikes, a Democratic administration helped set the stage for what happened in September 2001. Moreover, there has never been a sufficient explanation for the inadequate response to terrorist attacks in the 1990s--and President Clinton's refusal to accept deals that would have put Osama bin Laden in U.S. hands.
Democrats would answer that decisions made by past administrations have little bearing on next year's campaign. But that's another distortion. In some respects, President Bush's foreign and defense policy efforts resemble the guy who comes after the elephant act in the circus; there's quite a bit of cleaning up required, and you've got to be careful where you step. Obviously, the Bush team has made its share of mistakes, but they also faced the unenviable task of addressing key foreign policy and defense problems that were allowed to fester in the 1990s.
Moreover, the leading Democratic candidates (with the possible exceptions of Barack Obama and John Edwards) can't simply pass off past mistakes on "someone else." As part of their famous "two-for-one" deal, we must assume that Hillary Clinton had input into some of her husband's failed foreign policy decisions. Joe Biden was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during that period, and apparently had no problems with the way things were managed--or mismanaged. Chris Dodd was also ensconced in the Senate during that period, and we don't recall any complaints from him, either. Ditto for Bill Richardson, who served as our U.N. ambassador during that period.
On the issue of defense, the Democrats must also answer serious questions about some of their past choices. One reason the Pentagon is currently short on money (even in an era of $500 billion defense budgets), is that a Democratic White House took an "acquisition holiday" in the 1990s, refusing to adequately fund major weapons purchases. Couple that with long-term under-funding of the intelligence community during the last decade, and the American people should ask: why would a new Democratic Administration--led by any of the current candidates --be any different? After all, this is the same party that largely opposed the Reagan defense build-up in the 1980s, warning that it was provocative and escalatory. Instead, it helped hasten the collapse of communism and win the Cold War, once and for all.
Ms. Rubin is right about a few things. Some recent Democratic forays into the foreign policy arena (Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria comes to mind) have been absolute disasters. She also acknowledges that the party really has no comprehensive solution for dealing with Al Qaida, (other than executing a big skedaddle from Iraq), and dealing with the regional instability that will inevitably follow. Sooner or later, Rubin writes, they will have to do better. No kidding.
Fact is, much of the American electorate has been waiting for the Democrats to do better on foreign policy and security issues for more than 20 years. Over that period, the party has responded by tilting even farther to the left, embracing the radical factions that will stand for nothing less than a quick pullout from Iraq, and corresponding cuts in the U.S. military. Except for Joe Lieberman, you won't find a single Democratic Senator who has consistently supported the War in Iraq. His reward was a virtual banishment from his party, forcing him to run for re-election (and win) as an Independent. It would be nice to think that other Democrats share Lieberman's views (at least in private), but they're unwilling--and unable--to match his public courage, because they followed their party's migration to the left, and they're afraid to antagonize it's new, radicalized base.
It's true that Democrats are running against GOP foreign policy mistakes next year. But the Democrats are also running against their own, long-term record of failing to properly fund (and support) our armed forces and intelligence agencies, and taking a holiday on key foreign policy concerns. It's hardly a winning hand; in fact, the Democrats' post-Vietnam history suggests a party that is unserious about the most important issues facing our country. If the Democrats are successful on keeping the focus on Iraq, they may convince some Americans that they have better ideas. But anyone voter with a long-term view knows that Democrats have (largely) been on the wrong side of most foreign policy and defense issues for the past 30 years. That's hardly a record to run on. More like a record to run away from.