A Post-Iraq Security Consensus?

On the tenth anniversary of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, we may be witnessing a seismic shift in America's politics of national security. After decades of using hawkish positions for partisan advantage, the Republican Party is facing a foreign policy identity crisis. Its brand is still stained by the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror, and the once-fringe views of Ron Paul are becoming mainstream among the public and party activists, as shown by the response to Senator Rand Paul's March 6 filibuster and his success at this past weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference. This is liberating progressive Democrats to criticize the Obama Administration—now safely reelected—for its hawkish national security policies, and it might even free the party from some of its ceaseless fear of looking "soft" on terror.

It's about time. One can't help wondering what took so long, since this is clearly a winning issue: opposition to the Global War on Terror abroad and civil liberties infringements at home in large part won the Senate for Democrats in 2006, the White House for Democrats in 2008, and the House of Representatives for Republicans in 2010. But once elected, there is something about Washington that turns most everyone into a military-industrial establishmentarian, and all those promises to trim Pentagon waste, fight for civil liberties, and maybe even restrain American imperialism get forgotten.

Here is where Paul's filibuster and the response to it are instructive: they highlight where America is today. He clearly touched a major nerve. Half the country is ready for real change—and not just on drones. According to a 2009 Pew poll, 49 percent of Americans thought the "U.S. should mind its own business" and 76 percent thought we should "concentrate on our own national problems" more than on international leadership. In 2011, 55 percent of respondents told Pew that it wasn't necessary to give up civil liberties to curb terrorism. Some 45 percent of respondents to a January 2012 Pew poll thought a smaller military could be just as effective as the one we have; 58 percent told Gallup last November that they wanted major cuts in military spending. And 66 percent said that no countries—including the United States—should have nuclear weapons (in a 2005 Associated Press/Ipsos survey).

The numbers may be even bigger. It looks like most surveys actually underestimate the proportion of the country that is tired of the status quo. When survey researchers provide more information and ask more detailed questions over the course of a survey call, respondents move beyond visceral responses—of course I care about defending America!—to their more nuanced opinions. When this happens, public support for current military spending levels collapses—and it often becomes the government sector people are most willing to slash.

In one such poll, the Program for Public Consultation found that a whopping 70 percent of respondents wanted to cut the military budget by an average of 18 percent—far more than the sequester and far more than either party has proposed. And that only included just the Pentagon's "base" budget, not the supplemental war budget nor other non-DoD spending which together comprise almost half of our trillion-dollar security budget.

The problem is that this majority of the public is spread across the two major parties, the various third parties, and independents. To turn majority opinion into democratic influence will require more people from across the spectrum to work together. 

A cross-spectrum grassroots coalition could help provide political cover for politicians who are afraid of being painted as "soft" by über-hawks. It could provide cover for people who want to cooperate across the aisle, particularly for members of whichever party happens to occupy the always-hawkish White House at any given time. It might even make it theoretically possible for a less-than-hawkish candidate to have a real shot at winning the White House—and then force him or her to stick to those campaign promises.

Of course, coalition building and nurturing is hard. Our political parties work hard to promote mutual antagonism, and party activists don't like to take their team jerseys off. 

In addition, as David Swanson, activist and author of War is a Lie and the new report "Iraq War: Among World's Worst Events," told me, "It can be hard to get people to work together when they disagree on 80 percent of everything else." But he was clear that that's not a reason not to try. 

Perhaps the way forward is a series of focused coalitions targeted to specific goals. This is a preferred approach with experienced activists. With time and success, a cross-spectrum network of political allies—with supporters, funders, and mailing lists—could emerge. 

Targeted collaborations have already begun. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Virginia Tea Party Patriots worked together to push for the two-year domestic drone moratorium that passed both houses of the state legislature and is now on Governor Bob McDonnell's desk; other bills are pending in at least 20 states. Groups like the Progressive Democrats of America and RootsAction have partnered with the Tenth Amendment Center and Downsize DC to support the Hedges v. Obama lawsuit challenging the indefinite detention provision of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012. And we shouldn't forget that within the Republican fold, the Tea Party itself is a coalition of libertarians, Paulists, and paleoconservatives, united in part by their opposition to the growth of the national-security state.

But there needs to be more, much more. The targets are there or just over the horizon. There's the push for war with Iran, such as the currently pending Senate resolution that, though non-binding, would push the political snowball toward war by urging the United States to "provide diplomatic, military, and economic support" to Israel if it decides to take military action against Iran. There's the building momentum for intervention in Syria. There will be the inevitable excesses of the 2014 Pentagon budget request. The 2014 NDAA will most likely have an indefinite detention provision to fight. And there are drones.

The battle over the nation's budget that is unfolding in Washington right now highlights the challenges—and the need—for building a coalition. Analysis by the National Priorities Project shows that Representative Paul Ryan's plan, which the House passed Thursday, would prevent sequestration cuts from going into effect (actually raising the budget $35 billion beyond what the Pentagon asked for last year), though it does cut the supplemental war budget in half (but that looks like gaming because it maintains that level of spending for a decade beyond the projected drawdown in Afghanistan). Senator Patty Murray's would cut military spending by $240 billion over ten years and cut the war budget by half in 2014 and half again in 2015.  Yet these cuts are tiny compared to what the public wants—and the 18 percent cuts that 70 percent of the public wants could get us a lot closer to a balanced budget than what the so-called deficit hawks are proposing (if that's the goal).

Only the Congressional Progressive Caucus's proposal came anywhere close to what the public wants with its proposal to cut $897 billion over ten years (a 17 percent reduction on last year's Pentagon base request) and ending war funding in 2015. But it got almost no media attention and never had a shot in the House.

A coalition could prompt some real public discussion about what our national-security policies should be, about what we really need to defend ourselves and our interests—and which interests we should defend. As more Americans learn more about the harmful and wasteful realities of so many of our security policies, the majority that is ready for change will grow even bigger. And, who knows, the seismic shift could even start to bring some of our policies in line with what the public actually wants. Sounds kinda like democracy.

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