When Richard Nixon promised an "honorable end" to the Vietnam war it had specific resonance because of Nixon's record as an anti-Communist hawk. Anti-Communists trusted that Nixon understood the real threat of Communism. Hillary may have — until recently — burnished her hawkish credentials, but she's hardly a Democratic Nixon. And her supporters are hardly the war-on-terror equivalent of raging anti-Communists. Does anyone think that Hillary is particularly passionate about the Islamist threat? Is there anything like a Nixon-to-China move she could pull off? And the rest of the Democratic field is far more dovish than Hillary. ~Jonah Goldberg
Against this, Ross makes the important point that the Iraq war is far more unpopular than Vietnam, which may make this “only Nixon could go to China” logic irrelevant. It is true that Iraq is more unpopular in May 2007 than Vietnam was in July 1967. One reason for this greater unpopularity of the Iraq war may be that July 1967 was relatively earlier in the escalation of American involvement in South Vietnam than May 2007 is for the deployment to Iraq. 1967 and 2007 are useful points of comparison as years before presidential elections, but otherwise comparing poll results from these years may be misleading. From the first large-scale American deployment in March 1965 to the time of that poll was obviously a little over two years (even though there had been some level of involvement in South Vietnam going back to before the 1960 election), while we are beyond the four-year mark and, as things are going right now, the war seems likely to continue well beyond Inauguration Day 2009. 2007 for Iraq is actually more directly comparable to 1969, and you will find that a fairly similar percentage of Americans (58%) believed the Vietnam War to be a mistake by October 1969 as now believe the Iraq war to be a mistake (61%). Update: Ross has taken this objection into account in a later post.
This similarity is interesting because, for one thing, it casts doubt upon the claims that opposition to the Iraq war has been significantly different from opposition to past American wars in terms of how early that opposition started. This seems wrong. Americans seem to grow tired of aimless and unsuccessful wars at a pretty constant rate. They steadily, increasingly conclude that these aimless, unsuccessful wars are mistakes. That does not necessarily translate into stark pro-withdrawal opposition, and that may be where opposition to the Iraq war is different: recognising a policy as a mistake and concluding that we should end the mistaken policy in fairly short order seem to go together much more today than they did forty years ago. It is for that reason that the relative hawkishness of the candidate proposing an end to the Iraq war may not be as relevant as it once undoubtedly was. (Of course, even with Vietnam, it was perfectly possible to be ardently, profoundly anticommunist and to have never endorsed the folly of the Vietnam War at any time–see Kennan and Rothbard as two examples.)
It is debatable whether one could describe the foreign policy espoused by Nixon at any time could have been described as “raging anti-Communist,” as Goldberg seems to imply. There were raging foreign policy anticommunists on the Right, but Nixon wasn’t really one of them. In any case, in the 1960 election, Kennedy positioned himself as the more raging anticommunist of the two (declaring that we should go to war for Quemoy and Matsu if need be), and he and his successor pursued a policy in Southeast Asia consistent with that. (In 1964, it was still necessary for Johnson to portray Goldwater as the more dangerous, aggressive candidate to provide cover for his own fairly aggressive foreign policy views.) By 1968 the public might have concluded that less rage and more intelligence might have been in order. If that is the standard by which the public was judging candidates in 1968 and it is the same standard by which they will be judging next year’s candidates, the leaders of the ‘08 GOP field are pretty much out of luck. They are very good at expressing their rage against jihadis, but they seem to take pride in their lack of understanding (or they think their constituents will punish them for demonstrating anything like a subtle or intelligent understanding of the problem), whether we are talking about Mitt “It’s About Shia and Sunni” Romney or Rudy “What Blowback?” Giuliani or any of the other pro-war jokers.
Comparisons with Nixonian hawkishness prompt a couple questions: what defines hawkishness, and how is someone significantly less hawkish than Nixon if he, like Nixon, objects to the conduct and seemingly interminable nature of a pointless war? Nixon’s “hawkishness” towards communism, his “credibility” on opposing communism, was tied up with his legacy as a domestic commie-hunter. Nobody could confuse Nixon with a “com-symp,” because he actively pursued communists when he was in the House and was part of the campaign running against the corrupt and commie-compromised Truman Administration. Therefore, if he said that new leadership was needed to bring Vietnam to an end, people could trust that he wasn’t doing it out of any sympathy for communism. This was a kind of trust that left-liberals, for good or ill, could no longer inspire, whether or not they were ardently anticommunist: liberal hawks were perceived as incompetent, and so-called liberal “doves” were seen by Middle America as inherently too friendly towards communism because they tended to be from the far left side of the spectrum. This dynamic does not really exist today, or to the extent that it does exist at all it is the Republicans playing the role of the 1968 Democrats and vice versa.
Essentially nobody in the Western world actively sympathises with or shares the goals of Al Qaeda. Virtually everyone is in agreement that Al Qaeda and jihadism more broadly pose real threats that must be countered. In this sense, almost everyone in America is “hawkish” on jihadism in a way that was not necessarily true with respect to attitudes towards communism during the Cold War. Virtually no one in the West, and certainly no one of any consequence, expects or hopes for the triumph of jihadis, and both parties measure the merit of policies based on the degree to which they are perceived to help or hurt Al Qaeda and jihadis in general. If left-liberals do not use idiotic words such as “Islamofascism” when they talk about these matters, it is all the more to their credit.
That does not necessarily mean that left-liberals are the logical or more desirable choice for leaders when it comes to combating jihadis (for instance, there are very real problems with past liberal interventionist support for Islamic terrorist groups during the ‘90s), but it should mean that left-liberals can inspire rather more confidence that they are actually against jihadism even if they are also against continuing the Iraq war. They can inspire this confidence, for one thing, because the Iraq war is only incidentally connected to fighting jihadis and more and more of the public agrees with this distinction. They can also inspire this confidence because there is reason to believe that perpetuating the Iraq war actually aids the cause of jihadis more than it hurts them. Thus, a credible anti-jihadist case can be made for ending the Iraq war, while it was relatively more difficult to make the credible anticommunist case for ending the war in Vietnam. To do the latter, you needed someone who had strong anticommunist credentials without the foreign policy baggage of vocal and loud support for foolish, diversionary or counterproductive military campaigns, and Nixon had those credentials. Opposition to Vietnam seemed to be more of a test of one’s anticommunist bona fides, so only someone who already had them could call for an end to the war; opposition to Iraq has little to do with anti-jihadist bona fides, because Iraq has little or nothing to do with fighting jihadis. Democrats do not need to have a Nixon, because the relationship between the war they oppose and the broader global threat virtually everyone agrees is a threat is entirely different (though, like Iraq’s significance for the “war on terror,” Vietnam ultimately had no real significance for the outcome of the Cold War).
Voters will, of course, make some judgement about whether they think left-liberal candidates seem to have the best policies for combating jihadism, but these liberals do not suffer from such a lack of credibility with the majority of Americans that both liberal “hawks” and liberal “doves” had in 1968 and 1972. On the other hand, Republicans and most conservatives do suffer from this lack of credibility, because as much as they are “raging anti-jihadists” they are also tarred with support for a bungled military campaign (and one that is, despite their constant claims to the contrary, only tangentially related to fighting jihadis). To go to the other unsuccessful war of the Cold War period, Korea, we can see that Democrats in 1952 did not lack for a reputation for hawkishness. Democrats had been great ones for blundering into wars over the decades, and if the public judged “hawkishness” towards communism and “credibility” on national security by the proclivity to stumble into and not be able to get out of foreign wars the Democrats should have won in 1952 going away. Happily for America, the public did not judge in this way. It is also somewhat telling that the Republicans during the 1950s campaigned as the more aggressive anticommunist party, but actually governed as more or less rational realists who refused to get into wars out of some false pride in their anticommunist zeal or out of the mistaken belief that maximal aggressiveness is the same thing as smart opposition. It was possible to be hawkish without being irresponsible. The way that some people talk about attitudes towards the Iraq war (with supporters being “hawks” against jihadis and opponents “doves”) suggests that this is not fully understood by all. Zeal combined with ignorance and incompetence did not usually win elections in the past, and there is reason to believe that this combination will not win next year.
Another interesting thing about the Nixon ad is that it was being broadcast in 1968, which would be the equivalent of the Democrats having run on an “end the war” platform in 2006. Despite the mistakenly great expectations of antiwar activists about the meaning of the Democratic victory last year, the Democrats did not run on such a platform, yet the precedent of Nixon suggests that they might have won even more convincingly had they taken a unified, clear stand that they would work to bring the war to an end if they recaptured Congress. Failing to run on anything except national disillusionment with Iraq and GOP incompetence and corruption, they could claim no mandate and were thus always vulnerable to Mr. Bush’s efforts to interpret the election results in a way favourable to whatever policies he wanted to pursue. As usual with Democrats during the Bush Era, it has been their timidity and self-doubt rather than their overreaching that have weakened them politically. Their “defeat” over the war funding legislation had already been assured by the decision to run in 2006 on a platform of “we’re not Republicans.”