It’s not the kind of language one expects to hear from a Democrat.
In Tuesday’s debate, Sen. Barack Obama repeated to his opponent for the presidency, Sen. John McCain, as well as the nation, that he wanted to “kill” al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Obama also said he would be willing to mount a surgical strike into Pakistan, a nation armed with nuclear weapons, in order to “take out” the central figure in America’s war on terror if he was within the U.S.’s grasp.
History shows that – despite the publc perception – Republicans aren’t always the most hawkish.
For decades, Republicans have consistently won elections on the notion that the GOP is generally stronger on defense. But as Democrat Obama gains momentum in polls due to current economic troubles, is he also undercutting one of the cornerstones of Ronald Reagan’s Republican revolution by talking tough on bin Laden?
“Actually, this is a calculated effort on the part of Democrats to show they understand the need for force sometimes,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the defense policy think tank, the Lexington Institute. “‘Take them out.’ That’s not a term we normally hear from Democrats.”
While Obama and McCain differ strongly on how to handle the war in Iraq – Obama wants to pull out while McCain is willing to stay – the Democrat says he wants instead to divert those resources toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have re-entrenched themselves. McCain has said forces need to “finish the job” in Iraq, and is reluctant to launch a military operation into Pakistan, a nation considered friendly to the U.S.
Experts say Democratic presidents aren’t exactly doves when it comes to defense issues, but public’s image of the party is definitely softer than those of Republicans. Now, Obama’s tough talk may undermine that thinking.
“It says, ‘Hey, this is the guy [bin Laden] who’s responsible for all these problems. I’m going to go in and get him,'” said Lawrence Korb, a fellow at the Center for American Progress. Korb was assistant secretary of defense during Reagan’s first term in office. “It undermines the narrative that you can’t trust the Democrats to do national security.”
Korb says history shows the GOP isn’t always the most hawkish. Republican Richard Nixon actually cut the defense budget during his time in office from 1968 to 1974, but Democrat Jimmy Carter tried to raise Pentagon spending after winning the presidency in 1976. It was Carter who developed the doctrine that an interruption in oil supplies from the Middle East posed a threat to national security, Korb said.
Reagan took office after the 1980 election, defeating Carter on the notion that he would make the nation stronger by heavily boosting defense spending in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis, an episode that contributed heavily to Carter’s loss.
Pundits have said much of the success of the first Gulf War in early 1991 can be attributed to the Carter administration even though it was orchestrated by George H.W. Bush. During that short conflict, an array of high-tech weaponry got high marks for performance – much of which was developed under Carter’s watch.
Among the weapons procured during the Carter years: the Patriot missile, the F-117 stealth fighter and the Tomahawk cruise missile. One big-ticket item that Carter killed but Reagan revitalized, the B-1 bomber, sat on the sidelines during that conflict.
Korb points out that Reagan left Lebanon when violence escalated out of control in that nation, while Democrat Bill Clinton wasn’t afraid to step into Bosnia and Kosovo. Further, Clinton also tried to hunt down bin Laden.
“I’ve never thought the Democrats were all that peaceful,” said Phyllis Oakley, a State Department official under Reagan, the elder Bush and Clinton.
But Oakley, who spent several years for State in Afghanistan, says she’s not sure either candidate’s approach is best for capturing bin Laden.
“I’m really interested in how more forward-leaning Obama would be in dealing with al-Qaida and the Taliban,” Oakley said. As for McCain’s claim that has the acumen to get bin Laden without specifics also is questionable. McCain needs to at least offer a rough outline his plan – without violating national security.
“Saying ‘I know how to do it’ is the wrong approach,” she said.
Failure to capture
The current President Bush has taken criticism for failing to capture bin Laden, seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. At one point Bush vowed to capture the al-Qaida leader but backed off that stance once the Iraq conflict started.
The Lexington Institute’s Thompson says that’s one piece of evidence that Bush has “effectively dismantled” the Reagan revolution despite trying to adhere to its principles.
“I think seven years after the fact, Reagan’s people would have found the tallest guy in Pakistan,” Thompson said.
Neither Oakley nor Korb would say for certain that Reagan would have been able to chase down bin Laden, but both agree he would have taken a different approach.
“I’d like to think that in that period, particularly with [former Secretary of State] George Schultz working with Reagan, they wouldn’t have taken their eye off of Afghanistan and made the situation as difficult as it is now,” Oakley said.
“I would agree that the age of Reagan is over,” Korb said.