Two news items from last week speak volumes about the Democratic Party’s priorities on national security. First, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate -- including all the presidential aspirants -- voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which authorized military tribunals to try terrorist suspects and established guidelines for their aggressive interrogation. Then, late last Thursday, 177 House Democrats voted to thwart the passage of the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act, which expanded electronic surveillance of terrorists on foreign soil.
Civil liberties dogmatists like the ACLU applauded these obstructionist efforts, but they came to naught. Both pieces of legislation ended up passing -- though the latter act awaits approval by the Senate -- and the only political defeat was borne by the Democratic Party, which was left looking, not for the first time, like a calculating horde of anti-Bush partisans more concerned with frustrating the War on Terror for political gain than fighting it.
To suggest that many on the Democratic side are less than supportive of a tough-minded counterterrorism strategy is to arouse howls of self-righteous outrage. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was savaged by Democrats and their media sympathizers last month for making the commonsensical and seemingly innocuous suggestion that terrorists, like the Nazis before them, can never be appeased. Equally repugnant to Rumsfeld’s critics was his observation that a “‘blame America first’ mentality” imperiled the country’s ability vigorously to wage the war effort. Forget the fact that Rumsfeld was making only general remarks, and that he never once singled out the administration’s Democratic opponents. For Senators Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid, among others in the Democratic camp, the speech hit too close to home: Nothing less that Rumsfeld’s immediate resignation would sate their ire.
But surely the Democrats do protest too much. Rumsfeld may be too politic to say so, but the fact is that the current Democratic Party has forfeited the tough-on-defense legacy of such Democratic standard-bearers as presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. It scarcely overstates the case to say that the Democratic establishment’s most notable contributions to the war against Islamic jihadism have come at its expense. Supporting this contention are the Democrats’ repeated attempts to quash critical counterterrorism legislation.
Consider the vacillating fortunes of the Patriot Act. Initially passed with overwhelming bi-partisan backing -- the 2001 Senate vote on the Patriot Act was 98 to 1 for its approval -- it has since become a Democratic political metonymy for the putative extralegal excesses of the Bush administration. Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold has climbed his way to the top of the list of likely Democratic contenders for the presidency on the strength of his largely demagogic attacks on the Patriot Act, which Feingold claims restricts the freedoms of Americans “while doing little protect our country against terrorists.” Howard Dean has judged it “morally wrong.” Al Gore, more hysterically, has denounced it as a Bush administration “political tool to consolidate its power and to escape any accountability for its use.” The smear campaign against the Patriot Act culminated last January, when Congressional Democrats, citing alleged curtailments of individual rights, voted to block its full reauthorization. “We killed the Patriot Act!” Minority Leader Harry Reid exulted.
There was little foundation for this organized hysteria. Alarmist allegations by the ACLU quite apart, there have been no unreasonable infringements of individual liberties under the act, something even liberal Democrats concede: “I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said.
What is beyond doubt, however, is the Patriot Act has successfully streamlined American counterterrorism policies for the age of al-Qaeda. In the most important innovation, the act razed the so-called “wall,” erected during the Clinton administration, which precluded cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As a direct consequence, terrorist operatives who had long eluded the law -- among them Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian and various fundraisers for Hamas -- have at last been brought to justice. Provisions in the Patriot Act have made this a particularly unwelcome prospect: Terrorists now face stiffer penalties than at any time in the recent past. Little wonder that longitudinal polls reveal that a clear majority of Americans favors the act.
Democrats have not gotten the message. If anything, they have stepped up their assaults on more assertive counterterrorism measures. On the same month as they mounted their offensive against the Patriot Act’s extension, prominent Democrats declared against the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of terrorist suspects, details of which had been disclosed by the New York Times in December.
They began by portraying it as a radical and unprecedented expansion of presidential power. Senators Pat Leahy and Ted Kennedy, leading the charge, introduced a Senate resolution contending that there was no legal justification for warrantless surveillance. Sounding the same theme, the dependably pro-Democratic Center for American Progress issued a legal analysis condemning the surveillance as “an illegal and unnecessary intrusion into the privacy of all Americans.” Unafraid of hyperbole, Rep. Rob Andrews of New Jersey has decried the surveillance program as “the most expansive, frightening, and unreasonable expansion of government power since Japanese Americans were unlawfully interned in the Second World War."
But the facts -- and even some prominent Democratic officials -- were not on their side. Jamie Gorelick, a Deputy Attorney General under President Clinton, had testified before Congress in 1994 that the “President has inherent authority to conduct warrantless physical searches for foreign intelligence purposes.” Legal experts also found in the administration’s favor. John Eastman, of Chapman University School of Law, pointed out that “similar arguments have been advanced, successfully, by every administration since electronic surveillance technology was developed.” Indeed, no less an icon of the political Left than Jimmy Carter had authorized warrantless electronic surveillance to secure the conviction of two men for spying for Vietnam in 1977 -- a fact that did not prevent the publicity-craving Carter from denouncing the NSA program as “disgraceful” and “illegal.” The American public, too, sided with the president: An ABC News/Washington Post poll last spring found that Americans by nearly a 2-1 ratio considered the NSA surveillance program justified.
Having lost the battle in the court of public opinion, Democrats, as is their wont, turned to the federal courts for salvation. Their strategy was rewarded. Ruling on a suit brought by the ACLU in mid-August, a federal judge decreed that the NSA program was “unconstitutional” and called for its immediate suspension. But alert skeptics noted that the judge, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs, was not exactly a model of judicial independence: A Jimmy Carter appointee, Judge Taylor also serves as a trustee Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan in Detroit, an organization that in recent years has given at least $125,000 to -- yes -- the ACLU. In Democratic eyes, though, Judge Taylor became an instant heroine. Nancy Pelosi, joining a chorus of Democratic approbation, hailed her ruling as a “repudiation” of the Bush administration’s position on NSA surveillance. (The administration is appealing.)
Relentless carping from the Democratic side has served to obscure a crucial fact: The surveillance program has made it easier to crack down on terrorists before they strike. CIA chief Michael Hayden has testified that prior to the introduction of warrantless surveillance, the September 11 hijackers would have enjoyed special protections that would have made it impossible for investigators to uncover their mission. It should not be surprising in this connection that the recent plane-bombing plot was foiled by British authorities in part because electronic surveillance in Pakistan and Britain -- not unlike the kind authorized by the NSA program -- led them to the eventual suspects. To further appreciate the significance of the program one need only consider that some of the British suspects had reportedly made calls to the United States.
For many Democrats, however, partisanship trumps pragmatism. This partly explains last week’s near party-line vote against the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act -- even after it was amended to grant Congress a larger role in overseeing surveillance. Elaborating on his opposition vote, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey blamed the president: “The president wants to go on a fishing expedition, but he doesn't want to get a fishing license,” he said. Thus, in Markey’s bizarre calculus, terrorism was no more serious than fishing. As an illustration of the Democrats’ fundamentally frivolous approach to national security, the statement was hard to beat.
None of this is to suggest that Democrats are categorically opposed to intelligence gathering. This June, for instance, Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded an “independent commission” to investigate Guantanamo Bay on account of its allegedly inhumane treatment of detainees. Indeed, to hear much of the Democratic leadership tell it, the detention facility is an evil of world-historical proportions. Certainly that was Sen. Dick Durbin’s view when several weeks after Biden’s proposal he outrageously pronounced Guantanamo something that may “have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime...” Presumably this is the same Guantanamo Bay where, according to the latest reports, detainees have “gained an average of 20 pounds” thanks to a generous “high-calorie diet.” Gulags have never looked so good.
Moreover, while Democrats have long clothed their disdain for Guantanamo Bay in the raiment of moral superiority -- this being the presumed upshot of their concern for the constitutional rights of would-be terrorists -- last week’s near-unanimous Democratic vote against the Military Commissions Act has exposed it as a cynical ploy to score political points against the Bush administration. For months, Democratic leaders had pointed to the dissent of several Republican Senators -- John McCain, Lindsey Graham, John Warner -- as conclusive proof that the Bush administration’s position on the treatment of detainees was insupportably extreme. Then all three backed the Military Commissions Act, a compromise of sorts; the Democrats opposed it still.
The reason was the act’s allegedly draconian stance on torture. Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont described it as “something that may have happened under the Taliban, something that Saddam Hussein might have ordered or in the fiction of Kafka.” That reality is altogether different: The act specifically prohibits torture, defined as the infliction of “severe physical or mental pain or suffering,” and imposes strict punishments -- including the death penalty -- for interrogators who perpetrate it. What it does permit -- and what Democrats like Leahy apparently cannot abide -- is a wide range of aggressive interrogation techniques for terrorist suspects. Summing up the Democratic Party’s position on such techniques last week, Rep. Dennis Kucinich said: “This bill is everything we don't believe in.” No Republican spinmeister could have put it better.
So what do the Democrats believe in? To the extent that the Democratic Party has a governing philosophy, it might be described as reflexive oppositionism. Its central insight is that whatever bruises the Bush administration is good politics -- national security be damned. This goes a long way toward explaining why 174 House Democrats voted against a June resolution “[s]upporting intelligence and law enforcement programs to track terrorists and terrorist finances.” On its face, the resolution seemed unobjectionable. But for one detail: It also condemned the “disclosure and publication of classified information that impairs the international fight against terrorism” -- that is, the periodic leaks that have been the Democrats’ most useful tool in what has increasingly become their raison d'être: attacking the Bush administration.
And not just the Bush administration. To judge by the revolt in the Connecticut primary against Sen. Joseph Lieberman, one of the few Democrats with undisputed credentials on defense matters, national security hawks no longer have a place in the Democratic tent.
With midterm elections just weeks away, the Democratic Party’s commitment to the War on Terror remains very much in doubt. Just this week, the Democrats announced their intention to make the election about war -- class war. According to the Wall Street Journal, Democrats intend to harp on the gap between the rich and the poor. It’s unlikely to work. Not only has such rhetoric paid few political dividends in the past -- see: the ill-fated populist platforms of Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John “Two Americas” Edwards in 2004 -- but there are many reasons to think that security matters rank higher on the electorate’s list of concerns.
To be sure, there are some Democrats who, at least in principle, grasp that reality. “I fear that there are those who place a strategy for winning elections ahead of a smart strategy for winning the war on terror,” Sen. Hillary Clinton said last week. Inconveniently, she made those remarks after voting against the tougher provisions for terrorist suspects established by the Military Commissions Act, while her dig at the folly of political opportunism conjured up nothing so much as the modern Democratic Party.
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