Should Democrats Always Lead During War? Part One

Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher's show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush's actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child's play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.

This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.

The idea that partisan affiliation determines an individual's position on war and peace issues seems to go against the grain in an era in which we have been led to believe that partisan affiliation is declining. Yet there is no way to avoid the conclusion that party labels have more to do with whether there is widespread dissension about American wars than many of us would like to think. Democrats and liberals can only be counted on to support wars that are launched by a member of their party. Yet while Republicans are no slouches when it comes to trashing Democratic presidents, they can generally be counted on to follow the flag and back any war effort no matter who is sitting in the White House.

The roots of the current phenomenon can be traced backed to the Vietnam War. Though the anti-war movement began during the Lyndon Johnson administration and led to his decision not to seek re-election, one of the myths about that conflict is the idea that partisanship had nothing to do with the protests. Throughout Johnson's presidency and even during the fateful year of 1968 when the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy exploited anti-war sentiments, polls showed that Johnson's policies and the war were still supported by comfortable majorities of the American public. Campus protests against the war shocked the nation but the idea that most Americans shared their sentiments at that time was untrue even if there was little enthusiasm for the struggle in Southeast Asia. Republicans backed the war as did a sizeable portion if not a majority of Democrats who still saw the world through the Cold War prism of the need to "bear any burden" in the struggle against Communism that John F. Kennedy had articulated.

It was only after November 1968 that most Democrats, who despised the newly elected Richard Nixon, felt free to join in the anti-war movement. After that point, anti-war demonstrations were no longer limited to college campuses but went mainstream in a way that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. What followed was the conversion of the Democrats from a party that was primarily composed of Cold Warriors to one that would cut off funds to South Vietnam even after Nixon had withdrawn U.S. combat troops.

Democrats may argue that the first Gulf War fought by President George H.W. Bush and the initial popularity of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars under his son disproves this thesis. Though many Democrats voted against the authorization of force against Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the country was united in support of the troops that won the swift victory in Kuwait. The carping from the left after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was minimal. There were massive anti-war demonstrations against the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 though when Saddam fell quickly and the coalition forces were initially greeted as liberators, there was silence from the anti-war crowd.

But, as was the case in Vietnam, Democratic willingness to go along with a war that could not be easily concluded in days and weeks was limited. The first President Bush avoided this problem when he shut down the conflict and allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre Iraqi Shiites and dissidents while American forces stood by in liberated Kuwait. But George W. Bush's decision not to cut and run in either Afghanistan or Iraq led most Democrats to oppose those wars.

It's important to remember that Bill Clinton authorized missile strikes on terror targets and made terrible mistakes about intelligence such as the milk factory in Sudan that was leveled by an American attack because it was thought to be a terror target without so much as a peep of protest from liberals. Clinton even launched an air war in the Balkans to support the cause of independence for Kosovo without fear of much criticism.

It should be specified that there was much to criticize about the administration's conduct of the Iraq War but the idea that America was swindled into backing the conflict was always more about partisanship than Bush's alleged deceptions. Most Democrats had believed in the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Many also understood that removing Saddam was in America's interests for other strategic reasons. But it was only when the war proved costly and messy that they bailed on it as neo-liberals who supported the war on terror soon became its critics. Not even the U.S. victory won by the Iraq surge that liberals opposed, was enough to change the minds of most Democrats about Bush's war. Though many, including Barack Obama, said at the time that Afghanistan was the "good war" America should be fighting rather than Iraq, the enthusiasm on the left for that war disappeared when it was no longer a useful cudgel to be employed against Bush and Cheney. But the main conclusion to be drawn from the transition from a Republican-led war to one led by a Democrat was that the latter had the latitude to carry out his policies without fear of much criticism from the mainstream media or the left that had taken to the streets to defame his predecessor.

In part two of this series, I will further explore the implications of this partisan divide about war and discuss whether it will impact America's efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

Jonathan S. Tobin is the Sr. Online Editor of Commentary magazine and has been named the top columnist and editorial writer for Jewish newspapers in North American on several occasions. His articles can be found at