Friday, December 22, 2006
Everybody's looking for the last gang in town:
Lord knows I am no political scientist. But there are some big conceptual problems with Matt Continetti's cover story in the Standard this week. Continetti argues that an overlook partisan divide in America centers around what he terms the Peace Party and the Power Party. You can guess which is which. And, I suppose, it's true enough, in a banal sense. But problems lurk beneath the surface.

The evidence Continetti marshals doesn't actually hover around power as such. It has to do with war, or perhaps more accurately, militarism. He does a good job of demonstrating that Democratic voters are vastly more skeptical of military force. But the conceptual slip is in the conflation of military power with American power. Consider this paragraph:

In November 2005 the MIT Public Opinion Research Lab conducted a more specific survey. The data are revealing. One question asked whether the United States had made a mistake in invading Afghanistan in October 2001. Ninety-four percent of Republicans said the policy of regime change in Afghanistan had not been a mistake. Only 59 percent of Democrats agreed. In the MIT survey, only 4 percent of Democrats thought the war in Iraq had been worth fighting. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to support the use of U.S. combat troops, and by greater margins. This was the case when respondents were asked whether they would approve of using U.S. troops to protect oil supplies (10 percent of Democrats said yes versus 41 percent of Republicans), to spread democracy (7 percent versus 53 percent), to destroy a terrorist base (57 percent versus 95 percent), to intervene in a humanitarian disaster such as a genocide or civil war (56 percent versus 61 percent), and to protect American allies under attack (76 percent versus 92 percent). In only one area did more Democrats than Republicans support the use of troops: helping the United Nations "uphold international law" (71 percent versus 36 percent).

Now, were I to parse this data, the term I would give to the Republican Party would not be the Power Party. It would instead be the War Party. I don't mean this as a pejorative term, but as a descriptive one. The data here show that GOP voters have a deep well of support for any deployment of U.S. combat troops, whereas Democratic voters have a more circumscribed base of support. Furthermore, Continetti finds the interesting point to be one of partisan contrast. But clearly there is support within the Democratic Party for ground-force deployments; and within the Republican Party, support is deep but not inexhaustible -- 41 percent is quite a high number for sending the 1st Armored Division to take the Dharan oil fields, but it's not even a majority for a baseless act of imperialism. And indeed, the gap narrows quite a bit on the genocide question.

But notice that the question is a question about ground troops. It's not even a question about air or sea power. It's not a question about intelligence capabilities. And it's certainly not a question about other aspects of American power, like alliance-building, diplomatic engagement or negotiation or economic influence. If the real question Continetti wants to address is a question of power, here's where the rubber hits the road. Military force is only the most overt and explicit aspect of power. Ask a question about, say, whether the U.S. should continue its support for Israel -- perhaps the most provocative and important question of America's indirect reach of power -- and you'll find a substantial amount of Democratic head-nodding. In short, much like in Britain in the late 19th century, or Gaullist France, early 21st century America is defined politically by different conceptions of imperial management. One is radical and one is cautious. You can guess which is which.

Then there's the deeper question. If we're going to talk about military enthusiasms, Continetti owes it to his readers to spend some time grappling with the wisdom of GOP militarism. There are nearly 3,000 American consequences, and more to come, of this predilection. What has it gained America? What did it gain America to invade Lebanon in 1982? etc. Sometimes the exercise of military force is justified (Afghanistan, the Gulf War, we can debate the Balkans) and sometimes it isn't (Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq). Relying on military force all the time is a recipe for rapidly increasing the sphere of circumstances in which it becomes necessary. And in a democracy, that isn't even sustainable for the War Party --if nothing else, ask a GOP congressman as he cleans out his office. Continetti implies that there's a patriotic rot in the sentiment that "American power is not always a force for good in the world." But of course it isn't always a force for good in the world; one should question the judgment of those who would issue such blandishments. For it's clear enough where they lead: to war, again and again and again.
--Spencer Ackerman
Thank you, Spencer Ackerman.

It seems that the specialty of your blog is to digest and dissect recent currents in neoconservatism for those of us with weaker stomachs - and we thank you.

As you note, the "Power Party" is really a War Party with a naive and dangerous faith in the transformative power of violence. It's pretty clear that Bush's adventure in Iraq has objectively depleted American power. The U.S. military is now tied up in a long-delayed post-colonial melt-down in Iraq, and America's diplomatic apparatus has never been more discredited.

That being said, I don't pine for the good old days of more "competent" U.S. imperialism. I (and maybe I break with you here) would rather the United States withdraw from the imperialism game entirely.

I am not an abstract pacifist and I believe there are instances when military force may be necessary, but I don't believe the United States government has ever been the global guarantor of freedom that conservatives and many establishment liberals like to speechify about.
Blogger The Special | 8:06 AM

Matt Continetti couldn't bring himself to reprint the percentage of Republicans who thought the war in iraq was worth fighting. I wonder if it broke 50%?
Blogger Shane | 8:42 AM