Vietnam as Politics, Part II: The Republicans

The Republicans, by contrast, settled on fantasy. The party fought successfully to use patriotism as an electoral wedge, especially critical in the 1960s to appeal to a newly susceptible South. That use of patriotism was overtly connected to the virtue of the American military and American soldiers and sailors. The image was a black and white one of good against evil. The enemies of American valor and might were always painted in the darkest shades possible, without any acknowledgment of complexity or nuance. Thus, America fought an “evil empire” in Ronald Reagan’s words, or an “axis of evil” in George W. Bush’s. The point of this fantasy was to win elections, not truly to develop security strategies. But that electoral strategy paralleled a genuine interest and connection with both the military and military matters. The overall policy drew on the containment policy developed during the Truman administration, though also making efforts at rollback in strategically critical areas, like Central and South America. This interest and involvement was reality-based, and acknowledged the complexities of America’s global context. Thus, it was a Republican President who withdrew from Vietnam and opened China. It was a Republican President who negotiated substantial arms control treaties and oversaw the fall of the Cold War.

There were two critical factors here. First, the two strategies—the electoral and the reality-based—always existed somewhat uneasily and in a state of cognitive dissonance. Ronald Reagan could speak of the “evil empire” and joke that “bombing [of the Soviet Union] would begin in five minutes” while also discussing the total drawdown of nuclear weapons with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Reykjavik Summit of 1987. Second, the Republicans have come to be seen as the party with military expertise, whether each individual candidate actually had military experience. Thus Bob Dole had a heroic military career and George W. Bush, to put it politely, did not, but they were both helped by military issues during the elections they contested. This credibility of the Republicans has been so strong that even during 2004, when the Democrats ran a certified war hero to oppose Bush, the Democrats were still on the defensive on national security.
But the end of the Cold War disrupted the dual strategies. The “reality” behind the reality-based approach changed enormously. Suddenly, the expertise of Republican politicians in matters military became largely obsolete. Instead of a bipolar world split between two superpowers, the United States faced a much more fractured globe, one in which the old verities no longer applied. Combined that with the passing of the World War II generation of politicians and suddenly the Republicans no longer understood military affairs as they once had. The GOP had to relearn military reality. 9/11 confirmed that lack of knowledge, but rather than set about relearning, it is striking to note that the administration (filled with the generation trained by the Cold War—Cheney, Rumsfeld, and so on) reacted to Al Qaeda’s assault by turning on an enemy that was familiar both conceptually and personally: the authoritarian dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Rather than explore new approaches, the GOP preferred to insist that the old ones were still viable. That also left the fantasy theme of electoral politics. Thus, the war in Iraq came to be waged not entirely as a military affair, but also as a political and electoral one. Those charged with the reconstruction of Iraq were largely drawn not from experts in the region, but from Republican loyalists, young and old. This was the Karl Rove approach to postwar rebuilding. More, the situation in Iraq was treated—at least for the first few years—with an “either with us or against us” approach with no recognition of the complex and shifting loyalties within Iraqi culture, or the requirements of counterinsurgency, which often demands wooing your enemies as much as your friends. The result was chaos and near-catastrophe.

This chaos and catastrophe was echoed on the larger world scale. The Hollywood-version-of-reality approach to world affairs had predictably negative consequences. Unlike in the movies, the “villains” in the real world react intelligently. Thus, labeling Iran and North Korea as charter members of the “axis of evil” and invading the third member of that group inspired both of those countries to figure out how to protect themselves. Because the Bush administration had made it clear that they would not negotiate and because the American military was overwhelming in conventional warfare, the Iranians and North Koreans realized that their remaining option was the development of nuclear weapons. That was the only practical way of deterring the United States. They thus either restarted or ramped up existing nuclear programs. In addition, and also damagingly, they did everything else they could to slow an American approach by, for example, supporting the insurgency in Iraq (the Iranians) or cozying up to China (North Korea).
The clearest public statement of the deluded viewpoint of the GOP came in 2004, when one Bush Administration official (unnamed, of course) told a New York Times reporter: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

It turned out that reality was much less malleable than the Republicans believed. Bin Laden was not John Kerry (no matter how much Rove connected the two in 2004). The Iranians did not cooperate in their consignment to outer darkness. France did not come begging for mercy after the creation of “freedom fries.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not come to a rousing and heroic conclusion in time for the credits to roll. And though President Bush won reelection in 2004, the disjuncture between reality and the GOP’s electoral message had grown so wide by 2006 that the midterm elections were a disaster for the Republicans.
The Republicans thus entered their Presidential primary season with a need to shore up their national security credentials, preferably with someone not too closely connected to the Bush Administration.