The Democrats and National Security: Israelization

One of the brewing themes through Blue Blogistan is MSM’s casual assumption that the Democratic Party is too far left to be trusted on national security. This outrages folks like Atrios, who point out that most Americans want out of the Iraq war and are trusted more on that issue than the Republicans. The Moose generally retorts that the Democrats can never win unless the public trusts them to wage the war on terror: the left’s position on Vietnam consigned the Democrats to a lack of credibility on national security. And on and on.

At the risk of winning Wanker of the Day, I’d like to suggest that they are both right: essentially, US national security politics has become Israelized.

That phrase refers to the old saw about what the Israeli electorate wants from its government: a Labor policy carried out by Likud. Israeli voters recognized that Labor was right; that holding onto the territories was (and is) madness (both for strategic and moral reasons), and that ruling over millions of Arabs was not in Israel’s interest. But they never trusted Labor to actually do it properly without exposing the public to violence. That had much to do with Labor’s rhetoric than anything else. The one exception to this was Yitzhak Rabin, whose gruff manner and record gave him the title of “Mr. Security”. (As Labor leader, he never lost an election).

The same thing has happened to the Democrats. The public recognizes that the Democratic approach on Iraq is correct, and that we are going to have get out soon. But they don’t trust Democratic instincts on national security. They would prefer someone who is too willing to use military force to someone who is not willing enough. In short, they might not like George W. Bush, but they would rather have him than Jimmy Carter (who is the real culprit behind the Democratic image, not the Vietnam policy).

I don’t have an easy solution for this: the Republican solution would be simply to demagogue something. But I think that attacking Bush on energy dependency and obsequiousness toward the Saudis is the way to start. The general idea is to outflank the Republicans on what is erroneously called “the right.” The protest over the Dubai port deal was a prime example of this. Attack them on port security. Attack on body armor. Attack on the Bush administration’s fecklessness on securing loose nukes. Over and over again. A few more, and there might not be a problem

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

10 thoughts on “The Democrats and National Security: Israelization”

  1. Another factor that I think contributes to Democrats' inability to get traction on national security issues with the electorate is their alignment (real and imagined) with international bodies and with the idea that securing the approval of the international community is a highly desirable goal.
    In the run-up to the Iraq War, one of the biggest stated objections to Bush's intentions from Democrats, especially those on the left of the political spectrum, was that the U.N. was not on board and that Bush had failed to assemble an international consensus for action. I have no proof of this, but I strongly suspect that most Americans' attitude to this is – So F*cking What?
    One can be opposed to Bush's policy for all sorts of reasons rooted entirely in concern for U.S. interests. But the perception (again, right or wrong) was that a large part of the anti-war crowd's objection before the war started was based on the fact that France and Russia did not approve. And for this the American people will not stand. On saltier days, most Americans think its a good thing to piss off France and Russia.
    One big political step that the Democrats could take toward regaining credibility on national security with the electorate would be to shed the image as the party of internationalism. Now, one might think this is a bad policy direction, but politically it would work very well.
    To the extent that voters tend to trust Republicans more on these questions I suspect that its not entirely because they think Republicans are tougher, but also because they think that Republicans are unabashedly for the promotion of U.S. interests. Again, you may think this is not the case in fact, but its a very real perception.

  2. What you seem to be saying, sd, is that when it comes down to it, Americans would rather be independent, alone, poor, and dying, than interdependent, peaceful and prosperous?
    If that's so, why are Americans giving up so many of their freedoms to the US government, in order to buy what they think is peace and prosperity?

  3. I think a hyper-assertive approach to the rest of the world has great appeal to our reptilian mind–both as individuals and as a collective national entity.
    In maturity, we understand the reality of our interdependence and the benefits of cooperative action.
    Under certain circumstances (in response to a serious injury–like, say, 9/11, for example–we act out in immature ways and do things that we later realize were ultimately self-destructive.

  4. > One big political step that the Democrats
    > could take toward regaining credibility on
    > national security with the electorate would
    > be to shed the image as the party of
    > internationalism.
    Back in the Regean era I had a professor who was an actual living, breathing Communist whose analysis of the Democrat's election problems was "given the choice between a real conservative and a fake Democratic conservative, voters will take the real one every time". I understand Zasloff's point, even if I don't agree with it, but 'slide to the right' is useless advice; it will just get us a McCain/Jeb Administration. Probably with Cheney as Defense Secretary.

  5. What to Do About the Democrats' Image Problems on Security?

    Jonathan Zasloff has this post which raises a few key points. One (just for Morris) is that one party often implements the other party's program, and that voters might prefer one party's policies and still vote for the other party….

  6. As a political scientist and a former Democrat (I am now an independent – I don't trust either party with the security of the country, domestically or internationally) there is much to what you say. It is a variation on the old "it took a Nixon to go to China" argument. The American public at that time wanted to curb some of our military commitments, especially in Asia, but did not trust George McGovern to do it. Similarly, in my view, they wanted to cut back some of the excesses of the welfare state (e.g., welfare reform) in the 1990s, but wanted Bill Clinton to do it, not the Republicans. I think there are other examples that could be cited.
    What this leads to, of course, is a certain frrustration built in to American politics. Democrats will always end up acting more conservative than much of their base likes, and Republicans will end up being more liberal than much of their base likes (hence conservative anger at Bush for his immigration and fiscal policies, for example.) But that is what democracy is: you do what you can, not what you'd like. And the purists on either side stand and jeer.
    BTW, I would disagree with one thing. The Dems problems with national security started long before Jimmy Carter, though he certainly helped. They probably began in earnest with the "Who Lost China?" charge of the 1940s and 1950s. Remember that Truman, who many lefties now consider a reckless hawk (see Arnold Offner's and Bruce Cumings's books, for example)was seen at the time as kind of a wimp. Personally, I thought he got it about right.

  7. I can defnitely see this trend occurring, however, let's not forget that Israeli voters have far more choices than American voters. There's always a party that's closer tot he average views of an Israeli citizen. There's liberal Labor, centrist Kadima, and right-wing Likud, but also other parties. On the religious right but economic left there is Shas, another right-wing party there is Yisraeli Beitenhu, and then we have the leftist Pensioner's Party, in addition to numerous Arab-Israeli parties. Israeli is certainly more democratic than America right now.

  8. > Under certain circumstances (in response to a
    > serious injury–like, say, 9/11, for example–we
    > act out in immature ways and do things that we
    > later realize were ultimately self-destructive.
    That's true, but attacking Iraq would have been just as self-destructive if the UN had approved of it. Likewise, if attacking Iraq with UN approval were a good idea, it would be a good idea to attack it without UN approval. Our actions in Kosovo were good, despite lack of UN approval. In short, UN approval had no connection whatsoever with the wisdom of attacking Iraq, or lack thereof.
    I would like to remind everyone that the surest way to convince the American people that we should attack Iran is to tell them that we shouldn't do it without U.N. approval. Everytime you open your mouth and declare that UN approval is required for invading a country, you are asking for bombs to be dropped on Iran. Now, there are plenty of other pragmatic reasons why invading Iran would be a horrible idea, but if you try to turn this into an argument over the United Nations, I absolutely promise you that the argument will be lost and people will die.

  9. I agree with Poly Sci that the Dems problem dates all the way back to the Truman Administration. Kevin Baker has a fine article in the June Harper's about the "stab in the back" idea, which he dates to Truman's time also. For example, the Yalta agreement was universally admired in 1945, but by 1950 had become a conspiracy to betray Eastern Europe to godless communism, according to many Republicans.
    I am pessimistic about any Democrat's ability to cut through this powerful nonsense. About the only presidential candidate who did at a time of high foreign tension was JFK, and I'm not at all sure he really won in 1960.
    I am haunted by something that John Kerry tried in one of the debates in 2004. Kerry made the argument that terrorism is like ordinary murder, you're never going to wipe it out entirely. Instead the approach should be to attack it, track it down, punish it, but that it's more like prosecuting crime than like WW IV.
    Kerry suffered for this politically, and wasn't able to get out from under Bush's demagoguery on this. I can't see any Democrat doing so in 2008.
    If anyone can sketch out how and why I am wrong, I'd be all ears.

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