Are we starting to see a geologic shift between left and right on national security?

This is something I’ve been thinking about the last few days, and I haven’t written about it because it’s complicated and I haven’t had time to do something pulling all the threads together. But when I saw this development, I decided I’d better go ahead and throw out the general idea and get the discussion started:

Obama Says War Powers Act Doesn’t Apply to Libya Mission

White House maintains that the president doesn’t need lawmakers’ permission for U.S. role in NATO-led effort.

The White House on Wednesday told skeptical lawmakers that President Obama doesn’t need their permission to continue the nation’s involvement in the NATO-led mission in Libya because U.S. forces are playing only a supporting role there.

Administration lawyers made their case as part of a larger report sent to Congress responding to complaints that the president had yet to provide a sufficient rationale for continuing the Libya campaign, the New York Times reports.

“We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” State Department lawyer Harold Koh told the paper. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped, or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”…

OK, digest that. Here’s the NYT version, and here’s the WashPost. And then consider some of the other things I’ve been noticing lately:

  • The fact that, in the GOP debate the other night, we heard some Republicans moving more toward the “get out of Afghanistan ASAP” line. Ron Paul, treated as an outcast for saying such things four years ago, got cheered by the Fox News crowd.
  • The bold way Obama decided to go in and GET bin Laden, without any of that multilateral consult-the-allies (as in, tell the Pakistanis we’re attacking in the heart of their country) touchy-feely stuff. No fooling around.
  • The way the administration is playing on having stunned the world with the bin Laden thing to get its way elsewhere. That prompted me to write that the difference between Bush and Obama is that Bush was Sonny, while Obama is the far-deadlier (that is, more effective) Michael.
  • The way Obama is taking advantage of chaos in Yemen to just GO AFTER terrorists there, without asking Congress or the UN, or presenting arguments about the War Powers Act, or anything like that. Read this, and this.

This has been building ever since the election, with a lot of Obama’s antiwar base feeling pretty disoriented (wait — is this who we elected?), and people like me being reassured by his steady pragmatism.

But lately, the process has seemed to be accelerating. Obama still talks a good war-as-last-resort, multilateral, we-don’t-want-to-be-a-bully line for the base… but watch what happens. (And how about the way he threw everybody off-balance on Libya, letting the FRENCH of all people take the lead, while still managing to get in there and go after the bad guys? That enabled him to have it both ways. The allies couldn’t do it without us, but it came across looking like we were a reluctant junior partner, which bought Obama some support for the move among liberals.)

And I find myself wondering, is anyone else noticing? I mean, while the Republicans get more timid about the U.S. role abroad (in some ways) and obsess more and more about domestic issues (because that’s what the Tea Party cares about), Obama is out there going all JFK and LBJ. He’s going Old School. He’s defining Democratic presidential leadership back to where it was before Vietnam.

Are the parties moving toward switching places?

This is a fascinating development. I think it has the potential to completely realign the country politically, and on more than national security.

Anybody else noticing this?

32 thoughts on “Are we starting to see a geologic shift between left and right on national security?

  1. Matt Warthen

    It seems more partisan than anything. Before the No-Fly zone, the Right was everywhere saying “Where’s the No-Fly zone?”, then as soon as it started they were fervently against it.

  2. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    Maybe it just has to do with trust. The left more or less trusts Obama; the right trusts Bush, and the opposite is also true.

  3. Mike

    I have been noticing this – as well as both predicting this and worrying about this for some time. As a hawkish Republican that supports a robust foreign policy, I don’t want my party to become dovish or pull back in some sort of isolationist experiment. And I still think the position of the regular mainstream conservative Republicans (the kind you probably like Brad) is one of military strength.

    I was disappointed that Jeff Duncan voted against reauthorizing the Patriot Act and that Mick Mulvaney voted to pull the troops out of Afghanistan. But the traditional Republicans still support the Patriot Act as an effective tool in the War on Terror and don’t believe in getting in line with Kucinich of all people on Afghanistan. As for Libya, well surprisingly I agree with the Administration’s argument that our actions there thus far do not fall under War Powers – but I also think the fact that we are “leading from behind” and didn’t take decisive action to topple Khadahfi is a perfect example of how Obama is actually NOT becoming some sort of hawk. I just wish more Republicans and tea party folks stood up for an engaged foreign policy where America leads in the War on Terror.

  4. Brad

    Last night after writing this, I was having a thought similar to Kathryn’s: Only Nixon could go to China, and perhaps today, only a Democrat can go to war with anything like the kind of public support that is essential to waging it effectively. If a Republican tries to do it, the antiwar left will tear the country apart with the bitterness of its opposition. Whereas they will do little more than grumble at a Democrat, especially one who mesmerizes them into believing he’s as antiwar as they are.

    Not that I’m blaming Obama. He didn’t misrepresent himself. They just heard what they yearned to hear.

  5. bud

    I don’t know where to start on this. It’s as if I’ve fallen through the rabbit hole into some sort of wonderland where reality is trumped by some sort of rose colored, nonsensical world. A world where killing and war is actually peace. A land where cluster bombs and napalm are really flowers and nectar. Where if we spend a trillion on weapons people will suddenly embrace the American dream as the holy grail of goodness and love. It’s downright surreal to hear people blather on about such utter nonsense.

    OF COURSE THE WAR POWERS ACT APPLIES TO LIBYA. Jeez people defend the actions if you must but don’t go down this utterly absurd path where a president can wage a war without any sort of congressional authorization. At least Bush had a vote on his Iraq misadventure. If the Libya mission doesn’t fall under the War Powers act then frankly we should just get rid of the damn thing. We’re launching bombs and were at one time flying manned sortees into Libya. Maybe that isn’t the boots on the ground war that we so often wage but it’s still American military involvement in the affairs of an overseas and harmless nation.

    Here’s what I’d do:

    1. Disband NATO. That would make it clear which nations are fighting. Right now it’s too easy to hid behind the NATO badge. If a multinational mission is needed perhaps the UN can play a role.
    2. Immediately stop any American involvement in Libya.
    3. Require a congressional vote on ANY military action that lasts more than 48 hours.
    4. Cut the military budget by about half so we will be less inclined to use what little military capability we have except for genuine self-defense purposes.
    5. Withdraw all troops from the middle-east.
    6. Stop aiding foreign nations with any weapons especially Isreal and Pakistan.

    Obama has been a huge disappointment and hopefully he will turn things around and act like a pragmatist not a war monger. Otherwise I’ll stay home next November rather than cast a vote for POTUS.

  6. Tim

    I have a hard time seeing how the ‘anti-war left’ would tear the country apart. Its a pretty small group, from my observation. This isn’t the Viet Nam era.

  7. Karen McLeod

    Mr. Obama’s platform (as published on the net) was an accurate portrayal of his stances. I had had hope that this reasonable man could actually get our bickering partisans to talk to each other and see if they could achieve a useful compromise (and no, “compromise” is not a dirty word; it’s a way to keep the political pendulum from swinging out of control). Unfortunately we have apparently set the age requirement for our legislators to ‘under 5.’

  8. Greg

    The Bin Laden raid was the best use of our military resources since Gulf War I, and I’m not sure when before that.
    Why can’t the use of force be as simple as laid out in Tom Clancy and WEB Griffin novels? Or could it really be like that now if the leaders cared more about doing their job than getting re-elected?

  9. Norm Ivey

    I’ve noticed it, and it was driven home by the number of GOP candidates that said get out of Afghanistan during the debate Monday night. I like the way he has handled Libya–that action is NATO-led as it should be. I like the way he handled the bin Laden thing–unilaterally as it should have been. I’m still skeptical of our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I am heartened that our president is making carefully considered decisions based on the best interests of our nation. This is a smart guy and, as Kathryn says, I trust him.

  10. Lynn T

    Actually, the “antiwar left” did not “tear the country apart” about the Afghanistan war. It was generally perceived as a reasonable response to that country harboring terrorists responsible for 9-11. The “antiwar left” has been energized about other foreign wars because the justification for going in was far less certain. I don’t intend to get into the WMD/no WMD in Iraq thing again, that isn’t the point. The point is that when the evidence has been solidly there, there has been very little opposition, certainly not a concerted attack from the left.

    The United State has strategic interests of one kind or another virtually everywhere on earth. We can’t afford, either financially or in terms of the lives of our military, to continue to try to control events in all of those places, usually unsuccessfully or with a “law of unintended consequences” outcome. That isn’t a leftist position. It is one that rational people must consider. President Eisenhower would certainly be with me on this one.

  11. Mark Stewart

    It’s the mobius strip (hey, Doug, complex math in action!) of politics. Left and right have twisted and bent around to merge most unexpectedly.

    Or is it just that old strain of isolationist fantasy? I get that war and conflict are growing wearisome for Americans (not that meeting conflicts around the world has not been a consistent theme from our nation’s founding, however). But what strange fold in the universe is this?

    In the end of the day though, this is just inside politics played on an outdoor stage.

  12. Phillip

    While some sincere and ideologically consistent libertarians (I’d count our own Doug R among these) are helping to try to push the GOP towards its more historically grounded cautionary (i.e., conservative) view toward American global adventurism, which is indeed a change, I fear most of this in both directions is pure politics, plain and simple.

    The GOP candidates want to bash Obama so many of them are sudden fans of Congressional oversight and checks on executive power, even though many of them had no problem with this when W and Cheney were running things. And Democrat or supposed liberal who is willing to give Obama a blank check, or unlimited benefit of the doubt on these matters, is being purely partisan also, equally hypocritical.

    My question for such liberals is: are you willing to grant Sarah Palin the same power you are willing to grant Barack Obama? The Founders of this country took great pains to restrain the unilateral war-making capacity of the executive branch, and we remove those restraints at our extreme peril, REGARDLESS of which party may be in office at a given time.

    As for Brad’s observation that antiwar liberals “will do little more than grumble at a Democrat,” there is of course one obvious rebuttal to that premise:


    And speaking of Libya, anybody remember Obama’s quote that this would be “a matter of days, not weeks.”? I believe he said that, oh, about 13 weeks ago.

  13. bud

    At least we can count on good ole Lindsey Graham to remain a reliable war monger. From The Hill:

    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday that it’s time to consider international intervention in Syria to avoid the further “slaughter” of people there by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

  14. Brad

    Yes, fortunately, we can almost always rely upon Sen. Graham to put our national security interests first. Although I was a little disappointed with a position he took a couple of weeks ago…

  15. Doug Ross

    “Yes, fortunately, we can almost always rely upon Sen. Graham to put our national security interests first.”

    I know. Look how well war on terror is progressing! We’ve gone from one country to, what, five or six now? That’s the trouble when you declare war on a noun. They can show up anywhere.

  16. bud

    Brad, while we can debate the merits of intervention into Syria on humanitarian grounds there is simply no case to be made for intervention based on national security interests. Sad as the ongoing atrocities are there is simply no rational argument that that makes Americans less safe. Lindsey Graham isn’t even making that kind of a stretch.

  17. Brad

    Doug gets it! It’s not about a country, or a people, or a movement, or a religion, or anything. We’re actually simply going after people who do really, really bad stuff.

    Whole new concept…

  18. bud

    But in the process of going after people who do all this bad stuff we end up:

    1. Killing, maiming and displacing lots of people and call it “collateral damage”.
    2. Give the radicals a great new recruiting tool.
    3. Create the environment for invading additional countries later by virtue of the consequences of #2.
    4. Spend billions upon billions of dollars while we’re facing serious debt problems.
    5. Put American soldiers in harms way some of whom will eventually become casualties.
    6. Take resources away from going after people at home who do really, really bad stuff.

    In the end we fail to accomplish our humanitarian mission (Just look what happened in Somolia, Iraq, etc) and end up looking like a foolish bully. I’ll support sanctions and any humanitarian aid but military aid. Absolutely not.

  19. Lynn T

    We can’t go after everyone who does really, really bad stuff. The world is full of them. We especially can’t do it using warfare that costs tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of lives, theirs and ours, and expect people to applaud us for being so nice to them, even if we build every one of them the water and sewer lines that Columbia can’t afford for itself right now. It just isn’t possible.

  20. Doug Ross

    Too bad we’re using a sledge hammer to drive in a thumbtack.

    The mission may be clear but the execution is purely to support the financial interests of the military industrial complex.

  21. Mike

    Senator Graham was on FOX News during one of the daytime hours today saying exactly what I said above. He wants a Republican Party that articulates a strategy to win in Afghanistan, not one that says “like, gee, guess we should pull out now.” He was unimpressed with the foreign policy performance of most candidates (like Romney and Backmann) in the debate the other night.

  22. bud

    Liberals have certainly been consistent on this for years. As others have pointed out LBJs misguided adventure in Vietnam was vigorously protested. When Clinton was bombing Kosovo there was a stirring of discomfort among the liberals but it happened so fast no serious protest movement ever developed. And now with Obama the liberals are in with the partisan Republicans in opposition to endless military action. I’m 100% certain that the liberals would be acting the same way if John McCain was president. The Republicans, hypocrits that they are, would be supporting the commander in chief to the hilt.

  23. bud

    Here’s some irony. Bud, the anti-war radical just got a letter from my son who is going through basic training for naval reserve duty. Next week is hell week according to him. Not sure what that means but it doesn’t sound like fun. We’re planning a trip for July to see his graduation.

  24. Mike

    martin: You could just as easily say that if Bush was doing all of this, the media and the antiwar crowd would be raising holy hell. Why isn’t every MSNBC show leading with what they of all people should be deeming as Obama’s criminal misadventures in the Middle East? This is what is so silly about our politics. The antiwar left goes virtually quiet when a Democrat is lobbing bombs.

  25. bud

    Mike you are absolutely 100% wrong on this. The anti-war left is very much aghast at Mr. Obama’s wars in both Afghanistan and Libya. What exactly are you watching?

    But there are a couple of differences. Afghanistan was the war against the people who DID threaten us. Now that we’ve gotten Bin-Laden there’s no real reason to stay there and the POTUS will no doubt be accelerating our withdrawal from there. If not he’ll face very strong censure from the anti-war left.

    As for Libya, not a whole lot of American troops getting killed there. None to my knowledge. Sure we shouldn’t be there but let’s at least put this into perspective.

    The Iraq situation was a complete debacle of epic (or near epic) proportions that will cost us $trillions along with thousands of lives and 10s of thousands of maimings. Libya on the other hand may ultimately claim a dozen or so Americans and a billion dollars. Not acceptable in my book but certainly not the scale of Bush’s war.

  26. Phillip

    @Mike and @Bud: I’d have to come down somewhere between your two last comments. Mike, the criticism is rising on the left towards Obama, partly over Libya (note that the recent resolution was sponsored after all by Dennis Kucinich), and partly over continuing many of the constitutionally-questionable policies of executive-overreach and chipping away at civil liberties that was begun under President Cheney, oops, Bush I mean. Plus there is rising pressure to re-evaluate our presence in Afghanistan, which as Bud correctly points out, was the correct and justifiable action in response to the original 9/11 attacks, supported overwhelmingly by liberals even when W was President (the distraction from which mission was bemoaned by liberals and all who questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq).

    But, Bud, I feel you overstate the solidarity of the progressive wing in being critical of some of Obama’s policies. I agree with Mike that the same policies under a GOP prez would be much more sharply criticized by the left. Too many liberals share the sentiment that they “trust Obama” so they are willing to cut him some slack on things like an Exec-Branch-friendly interpretation of the War Powers Act as regards Libya, for example.

    Look, I feel that by and large Obama’s heart and mind are in the right place, certainly as compared to the freak show otherwise known as the GOP Presidential field. But that is EXACTLY the time to be most vigilant about the creeping degradation of constitutional safeguards, the undermining of the Congressional role in the waging of war by this nation, the growing power of the executive branch. (And that’s also why true conservatives should have been much more critical of the Bush/Cheney extra-constitutional maneuvers.) Because the added powers to which we acquiesce out of a “trust” that they are being used wisely by “our” President (whether you are a liberal or conservative) will of course be available to a President who is from a completely opposite political philosophy from the one you like. Bushies had to know the added Executive Branch prerogatives would be available to an Obama; Barackophiles need to remind themselves that the powers they would entrust to their guy would also be available to a President Michele Bachmann. Feel good about that?

  27. bud

    Bushies had to know the added Executive Branch prerogatives would be available to an Obama; Barackophiles need to remind themselves that the powers they would entrust to their guy would also be available to a President Michele Bachmann.

    I couldn’t agree more. And although I can’t speak for all liberals I find the whole Libya adventure very disturbing and I’d stand with Kucinich and yes the Republicans in fighting it.

    It’s a shame we even have to contemplate the nightmare of a President Bachmann but it could happen. Her star is rising fast and the Tea Party stalwarts seem to be coalescing around her campaign. (I still rate Romney the heavy favorite but Bachmann now seems to be number 2).

  28. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    @ Phillip– a government of laws rather than one of men, you say? Revolutionary!

    I would add that some progressives are anti-war, as indeed are some conservatives (libertarians,isolationists), while some are more pragmatic. Theory is nice, but even the theory-loving West Germans practiced Realpolitik.

    Bright-line tests are not very refined, by definition. Sometimes you need some finesse–political matters are complicated…which is why checks and balances are so important, and a good thing that Governor Haley has no war powers!

  29. David

    The anti-war left is very much aghast at Mr. Obama’s wars in both Afghanistan and Libya.

    Bud, I would ask that you would withdraw your application of the term “war” to Obama’s efforts in Libya. Non-hostilities, I think, sounds better.

    Or don’t you have that feeling that Obama’s heart and mind are in the right place too?


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