A New Phase in the Culture War: National Security


By Joe Campbell
June 15th, 2009


 
As Barack Obama and Dick Cheney prepared their dueling speeches last month, Reihan Salam observed:

National security has become part of the culture wars, only with Dick Cheney as the new Jerry Falwell. It doesn’t matter that Obama is escalating the war in Afghanistan or that he’s embraced rendition. To Cheney, Obama’s anti-torture stance represents the moral vanity of a naïve one-worlder.

We’ll be hearing much more about this new culture clash. During the hearings on Obama’s first Supreme Court appointment, Republicans will spend more time hammering the Democratic nominee on Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Boumediene v. Bush than about Roe v. Wade. At the moment, Obama looks untouchable. But the politics of national security could prove his undoing.

This observation is seeming more and more apt as the months go by. And yesterday morning’s appearance by Mitt Romney on This Week With George Stephanopoulos suggested that if Romney has anything to do with it, the Culture War will extend to foreign policy as well.

Foreign policy and national security have always been matters of contention between the political parties – but Culture War issues functioned a certain distinct way.

In some sense, the Culture War can be traced back to the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation” as they fought over Vietnam and then social issues. By the 1990s, the Baby Boom generation dominated most institutions in the country and  a large number of Americans had divided into two warring camps along a familiar lineup of issues: abortion, homosexuality, guns, censorship, separation of church and state, etcetera. Each party became dominated by those with the most extreme positions on these issues. There were only two ways for savvy politicians to position themselves – to triangulate and try to find some reasonable accommodation; or alternately to find a reasonable position and  make sure that they were wrong – but on the right side of the issue. During this time, issues of national security and foreign policy didn’t break down in the same partisan way. Republicans opposed Clinton’s proposed anti-terrorism measures; Democrats were more hawkish than Republicans in Bosnia – and in both cases, neither side was completely aligned. These issues weren’t litmus tests – but matters upon which reasonable people could and did disagree.

Then came September 11 and George W. Bush’s and Karl Rove’s explicit decision to use the War on Terror as a political weapon. There were no mainstream Democrats opposed to most aspects of Bush’s emergency measures, so Rove tried to make any slight suggestion of disagreement tantamount to treason. Though this worked well enough as a political tactic, it still hadn’t moved national security issues into the Culture War entirely.

The turning point came when allegations of torture began to surfare – and the photos of the abuse at Abu Ghraib came to light. Everyone was shocked – Republican and Democrat. Everyone condemned it. Except the far-right partisans. I remember reading The Corner and other blogs around this time – and an extraordinary thing happened. For weeks, these men and women had been insisting that America did not torture – only, maybe  some bad apples  – and that to suggest we did torture was a form of America-hating. Then, almost overnight, all of these same men and women began to talk about ticking time bombs and demanding to know why we shouldn’t torture a terrorist who hated America!

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it was an election year – and with everything viewed through this prism, it’s easier to justify something awful. But regardless of the reason, in that moment, national security became part of the culture war. Karl Rove accomplished what he had been trying to do. He polarized the electorate so that it became necessary for any savvy politician on the right to be wrong on the right side of these issues.

By 2008, this was evident – as the sensible position that there had been overreach in Bush’s War on Terror – and that for example, Guantanamo should be closed down – gave way to Mitt Romney declaring that he would “double Guantanamo” to cheers. It’s a nonsense phrase – but the Culture War isn’t about policy – but about position.

Now, Romney is continuing this – and pushing it into foreign policy.

Yesterday morning, Romney, adopting the freedom of expression and lack of accountability typical of  party out of power, launched a critique of Obama’s response to the Iranian elections – and to the Middle East in general:

Romney criticises Obama’s use of “sweet words” (sounding eerily similar to Zawahiri who denigrated Obama’s “elegant words“) – yet his only suggestion for how to react differently to the Iranian elections would be to use Romney’s own words – which admittedly aren’t as “sweet” or “elegant.” And of course while Romney denigrates Obama for relying on words without action – Romney’s only response to the Iranian election is to use his own words.

(This brings up an interesting difference: Obama uses the power of words to affect what is going on, as in his Cairo speech, his race speech, his speech on national security – while Romney insists we must use our words to express ourselves and to show what side we are on. This difference in the use of language is precisely what makes Obama an effective speaker – but this is a topic for a different day.)

What Romney forgets is that – in Andrew Sullivan’s words:

This is not about us. It’s about them.

The time may come for the president to stand with the majority of Iranians – to voice his support – but Romney’s demand for instant moral clarity demonstrates a Culture War view of foreign policy – of a need to be wrong on the right side of the issue. As a candidate, this Culture War take on national security and foreign policy can be effective – but as a governing tactic, it is disastrous.

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