The Media's National Security Double Standard

The GOP no longer has the upper hand on national security.

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FE_DA_121109ObamaSpeech.jpg
President Barack Obama holds up a pen as he speaks about the economy, Nov. 9, 2012, in the East Room of the White House.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In the "old days" of the Cold War, the Republicans were generally believed to put more capable people in senior national security jobs than did the Democrats.

For a number of reasons—the end of the Cold War being the primary one—this changed. Since then, there have been fewer fundamental national security policy differences between the parties—beginning with the George H. W. Bush administration, through Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and the Obama administration.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

With a few significant exceptions:

First, while Democrats would have intervened militarily somewhere in the world—probably Afghanistan—as a response to 9/11, they probably would

not

have gone into Iraq. And, they would probably

not

have

stayed

there after the weapons of mass destruction issue was "resolved" and Saddam Hussein and his crew were "neutralized".

Second, Democrats, favoring arms control as they do, would not—as G.W. Bush did—have withdrawn from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And, Democrats continue to defund anti-ballistic missile system procurements and delay and/or cancel deployments—a sort of unilateral arms control that many believe is dangerous.

So, while one thesis here is that the parties are now—generally—more the same than they are different (on national security) the other is that Democrats can "do" some of it "better" than Republicans. And, the examples of this might surprise some:

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

First, recall that after the Watergate Scandal (and the Church and Pike investigations) Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, in 1978. To this day, FISA remains an extremely comprehensive law enabling electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes.

The irony? The whole idea of authorizing, enabling, and facilitating the comprehensive government surveillance of "U.S. persons" for other than pure law enforcement reasons (and based on other than traditional  "probable cause") has long been opposed by various—and very vocal—U.S. civil rights organizations. Yet, FISA was passed during a Democratic administration and has been steadily expanded during subsequent Democratic administrations. For example, FISA was amended to include "physical searches" during the Clinton administration, which was also aggressively opposed by various civil rights organizations.

Could these important (and valuable) national security legislative steps have been taken during Republican administrations? Most of us "in the business" would agree that the civil rights backlash would have been too much for Republicans to handle. Yet, Democrats were able to brush it off, and have continued to do so with successive amendments to FISA, increasing the powers of government surveillance—thereby improving our overall national security.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Pakistan a Reliable Ally?]

Other examples include the operation in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, drone operations, and the so-called "kill list." Imagine this: George W. Bush had approved a military operation inside the sovereign territory of a "friendly" country to kill bin Laden, without the country's knowledge and/or consent. Could/would he have done it?

Probably not, and the politics seem pretty clear: While Bush could have gone after bin Laden—even in Pakistan—it probably could have happened only as a far more immediate reaction to 9/11. Would/could he have done it—years later—as Obama did, in a brazen violation of Pakistan's sovereignty (even though it was a great idea)?

And, what about Obama's "kill list"? Can you imagine the political and media outrage (that would have been fueled by Democrats) if Bush had a "kill list"? Even worse: What if it had resulted in the targeted death of a U.S. citizen—as did the Obama administration's drone operation that killed Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico? [Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Not only that, the "legal justification" for the "kill list" is apparently the subject of a DOJ memo that has not (yet) been declassified. In this respect, aren't we reminded of the intense media and political pressure—during the Bush administration—to release the Department of Justice memos on the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques"?

By the way, there's absolutely nothing wrong—except maybe the political incorrectness of the name—with the idea of a terrorist "kill list." This, so long as we're describing terrorist leadership targets: To put it bluntly, these are very, very dangerous people—and just like bin Laden, "need killing."

Finally, while it now seems "OK" for Democrats to "approve" the indefinite detention for the most dangerous terrorists, such was widely criticized during the Bush administration. However, this now seems almost beside the point: Is it necessary, is it legal, and is it a sound solution for our longer-term national security? If it is, we should do it!

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?]

As a very smart guy once said: "Everything is politics." And, that idea certainly includes the "law and practice" of national security and in Washington, D.C. The very practical result is that there are things Democrats can do for our collective national security that Republicans can't—even though it might be hard to get either side to admit it.

There is another way to explain this "policy anomaly:" The media's "license" for the parties is fundamentally different, and Democrats can take advantage of this when they need to—hopefully, for the benefit of our collective national security. In other words, Democrats simply don't get the media criticism for the more controversial national security policies—and actions—that Republicans get, and sometimes that's to our advantage.

And sometimes, especially with more controversial matters, Republicans and Democrats are only comfortable when they can move together as a "herd," as they did after 9/11 with the passage of the Patriot Act. The theory here is also an old one: There is political "safety in numbers", and most of us would like to see (much) more of this from our Congress. Maybe they should try it with the budget?

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