Awhile back I wrote a post that explained how, during the Cold War, Republicans claimed credibility as the “war-national security” party when it was three Democratic presidents who had led the nation through World War I and II.
In a nutshell, it was through a campaign of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies.
In the 1930s it was the American Right, not the Left, who thought Hitler was an OK guy who could be appeased into leaving us alone. Before World War II conservatives were staunch isolationists who opposed any move by Franklin Roosevelt to send aid to Europe or prepare for war.
Here’s just a bit from “Stabbed in the Back!” by Kevin Baker in the June issue of Harper’s, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already.
In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.
Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.
Baker explains the whole sorry episode very nicely. Briefly, in the late 1940s the former appeasers of Hitler got worked up over the Soviet takeover of eastern Europe and Mao Zedong’s takeover of China. One of the catchphrases of the day was “Who lost China?” as if China had been ours to lose. Right-wingers were convinced these things would not have happened except for (liberal) traitors in the government who either allowed them to happen or arranged for them to happen. (They seemed unable to consider that people and events in the USSR, eastern Europe, and China may have been factors.) And the Right put up such a stink about this that by the 1960s Dem politicians were challenged to prove they were as “tough on Communism” as Republicans, never mind that Democrats had a much longer and stronger record on foreign policy and as protectors of national security than Republicans at the time.
I bring all this up because Glenn Greenwald’s post of this morning makes me wonder if we’re just replaying old tapes.
Glenn’s post documents that during the Clinton Administration, Republicans in Congress downplayed the threat of terrorism even as President Clinton urged more aggressive counterterrorism measures. “[T]o the extent Republicans spoke about Clinton’s anti-terrorism efforts at all, it was to criticize them for being too bellicose, too militaristic, and just unnecessary,” writes Glenn. Particularly during his second term Clinton urged Congress to become more pro-active about terrorism. With a handful of exceptions, Republicans in Congress ignored the warnings.
During his first presidential campaign George W. Bush ignored terrorism as an issue even though he offered other specific criticisms of Clinton policies.
The 2000 Republican Party Platform contains 13 specific criticisms of the Clinton Administration’s foreign and military policies. Not a single one mentions or refers in any way to Al Qaeda or terrorism generally. After that, there is an entire section entitled “The Middle East and Persian Gulf” that deals extensively with Iraq and the alleged threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but it does not say a word — not a single word — about Islamic extremism, Al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden.
Even the section of the Platform entitled “Terrorism, International Crime, and Cyber Threats” makes not one reference to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, or Islamic extremism. It does not contain a single claim that the Clinton administration was insufficiently aggressive towards Islamic terrorists, nor does it advocate increased militarism in the Middle East or against terrorists. In fact, to the extent Republicans advocated a new approach at all, it was to emphasize the need for the very “law enforcement” and “domestic preparedness” approaches which they now claim to disdain.
During his debates with Vice President Gore, George Bush was asked to explain his views toward the Middle East. He said not one word about Islamic terrorism. He did say things like “I’m worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. . . . It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious.” And also, “And so I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.”
Condi Rice also showed no interest whatsoever in al Qaeda or bin Laden.
When George W. Bush became President, one of his first acts was to kneecap the Hart-Rudman Commission recommendations then before Congress and assign the task of forming national security policies to Dick Cheney, who as of September 11, 2001, had not yet made a start. In spite of the warnings of outgoing Clinton officials that al Qaeda was a terrible threat, in April 2001 the Bush Administration’s first annual terrorism report left out Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden had been discussed extensively in Clinton-era reports. A senior State Department official told CNN the Clinton Administration had made a mistake by focusing so much on bin Laden and “personalizing terrorism.” The Bush Administration planned to focus on governments that sponsored terrorism, not on stateless terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.
And, of course, through the summer of 2001 the Bush White House blissfully ignored warning after warning that bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States.
Yet no sooner had the dust settled at Ground Zero that the Republicans declared themselves to be the All-High God-Appointed National Security Honchos, rightie fingers pointed at Bill Clinton, and Prince Pissant persuaded the American people that he, and he alone, could protect them from terrorism.
ABC’s controversial 9/11 film has inspired many other bloggers to write about actions Clinton had taken against terrorism, and al Qaeda in particular, before he left office. Here’s an old article by William Rivers Pitt that provides details, plus there are a wealth of good links in the comments to Glenn’s post.
You could argue that Clinton could have done more. But you cannot argue, based on their own record, that the Republicans or President Bush have more credibility in national security and counter-terrorism than Democrats do. If facts are our guide, Republicans ought to have less credibility in national security and counter-terrorism than Democrats do.
The only reason the Right gets away with claiming credibility in national security is through a relentless campaign of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies — just like the bad old days, when Joe McCarthy was shrieking about traitors in the State Department who lost China.