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Samantha Power on National Security

In the New York Review of Books, Samantha Power lays out three ways Democrats can begin to take ownership of national security debates this election year. They’re worth quoting1 in full:

  1. The New versus the Old. Democrats should argue that their foreign policy is particularly well suited to meeting today's unconventional threats—those that cross borders. Meeting such threats will sometimes entail using military force, but it will almost always require mustering global cooperation. Here the Democrats must point to the security consequences of the loss of respect for the United States around the world: the US requires the assistance of others to aid it in combating terrorism, halting nuclear proliferation, and reversing global warming. In scorning international law and public opinion abroad, Republicans have alienated those the US needs to share the burden of neutralizing threats that Americans deem the most pressing. Democrats for instance, will be more effective in securing the cooperation of intelligence and law enforcement officials in the eighty countries in which al-Qaeda is now active.
  2. Deeds versus Words. In his National Security Strategy for 2002, Bush used the words “liberty” eleven times, “freedom” forty-six times, and “dignity” nine times; yet people who live under oppression around the world have seen few benefits from President Bush’s freedom doctrine. Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under Bush, put it best when he said, “Since 9/11 our principal export to the world has been our fear.” The gulf between America’s rights rhetoric and the abuses carried out against detainees in American custody has been fatal to American credibility. Obama needs to restore that credibility by ending those excesses, and by following through on his pledge to launch a foreign aid initiative rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s core democratic value: freedom from fear. The United States should invest in a long-term “rule of law” initiative that takes up the burden of helping other countries and international organizations to build workable legal systems in the developing world.
  3. Law versus Lawlessness. In arguing for closing down Guantánamo, ending extraordinary rendition, and returning to the Geneva Conventions, Democrats must remind voters of the national security consequences of being perceived as a lawbreaker. More terrorists take up arms against the United States, while fewer countries take up arms along with the United States. In stressing the importance of law, Democrats should also repudiate the extraordinary and illegitimate presidential power seized by Bush (and generally supported by McCain). As a constitutional lawyer, Obama is in a unique position to argue that as commander in chief, he will never hold himself or his advisers above the law.

The second point is the politics of dignity championed by Power and subscribed to by Obama. It seems like the easiest point to sell because it is a common-sense appeal. The other two seem to me trickier. The first requires the threading of a needle and therefore seems most vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. (Indeed, it is on those grounds that John McCain has and will continue to hit Obama the hardest.) On the other hand, the third requires reflection on the part of listeners: to remind voters that the U.S. is perceived internationally as lawless is to say that the U.S. acted illegally, that the U.S. did something wrong. There is a point at which criticism shifts in focus from a previous president and his policies to the nation itself. Because Republicans long ago learned how to exploit that point (cf. John Kerry), Democrats tend to get all avoidy about it and try to change the subject to the economy. But Power’s assertion that it must be approached directly is the right one. Fortunately, Obama is a skilled enough orator that he can pull off the subtle arguments he needs to make—and McCain’s campaign is bumbling enough that Obama will be able to do so without much contest.

Anyway, what’s your assessment of how—or whether—Power’s points will be addressed in the campaign?

1 The essay’s worth reading, too, especially her history of modern U.S. national security debates.



Goddammit, I wrote a medium length comment here a little while ago, and checking back I see that I forgot to hit post. Fuck.

Maybe it’s in your browser’s cache!

On reading that last paragraph today, I probably should’ve just left Power to speak for herself and not tried to write incomprehensible drivel too late at night.

I agreed with it in my comment, which is not even in the cache.