In a matter of weeks, the people of the United States will witness the first Democratic presidential primary debate in eight years. Unfortunately, due to the all-consuming nature of the Obama presidency and—until recently—the lockstep uniformity of the Democratic Party, whatever differences of opinions and priorities prominent Democrats may have held during the last six years have been masked by silence. It should be a revelatory experience to see whether any fundamental differences do exist between Democratic candidates or whether the party’s social subjectivism and hostility to dissent have stamped it into one monolithic unit, unable to bend without cracking. The left celebrated in 2010-2012 as the Republican Party saw a proliferation of challenges and dissent with the rise of the Tea Party, but as this publication noted many a time, that room for disagreement and debate is the sign of a healthy party able to adapt to a changing political climate and cultivate new, young talent. It is difficult to deny that the lack of room for disagreement in the Democratic Party has played a significant role in narrowing the field of potential candidates it has to offer in 2016. Nonetheless, between the most divisive woman in American politics, two Democratic governors with little to lose, a moderate former senator who served in the Reagan administration, and a firebrand geriatric socialist, it would be a disappointment if we continued to see so little crossfire on the left.
Intriguingly, only one Democratic candidate has begun to meaningfully address the subject of the role of the US military in the twenty-first century: former Secretary of the Navy and US senator from Virginia Jim Webb. Webb, a distinguished veteran, is a throwback to Democratic candidates of the last century but one the party needs if it is to retain some sense of sanity and appeal to moderate independents. Highly active on Facebook and prone to respond directly to voters’ questions, Webb is appealing directly to military personnel just as his party has largely neglected and alienated them. In a post on August 18th, Webb was quoted as saying, “I honestly believe that if 25 percent of Congress had to wake each morning wondering if their kid was alive, we’d have a different foreign policy.” He has also come out strong against the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, saying in another posted quote, “I think it is a bad deal. I’ve said for several weeks now. We need to put country ahead of party. It troubles me when I see all this debate about whether this is disloyalty to the president or to the Democratic Party.”
Webb will undoubtedly be a figure to watch in the coming months, and there is more to say about his merits as a candidate. For the time being, though, his words invite an important question that voters should be asking: what is the Democratic Party’s conception of the role and purpose of the US military? Democratic candidates today avoid the subject like a bad debt. Knowing that their base, unlike that of the Republican Party, is more divided between the dwindling ranks of the Christian left who remain pro-military and the Occupy/environmentalist fringe who see it as an instrument of American chauvinism and bullying, candidates toe the line and satisfy themselves with losing military votes in exchange for retaining the party rank-and-file. The result is a wholly undefined policy with respect to the military—one that is reflected in the current president’s eclectic views on foreign intervention.
President Obama has lost considerable support among military personnel, with some estimates citing his approval ratings among servicemen and –women at around eight percent. One imagines that a major contributing factor to this decline is his unarticulated, indiscernible standards for what constitutes an occasion for US intervention. Obama’s decision not to get involved in the failed Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 was a missed opportunity, ignoring an invitation from dissidents within the country to seize the moment. Likewise, he chose to stand by as the Arab Revolts of 2011 proliferated throughout the region—a wise and understandable decision—but then leapt to action when the unrest spread to Libya, tasking NATO with helping Libyan rebels overthrow the one regional leader who was funneling information to the CIA on other Arab governments. Obama’s eagerness to get involved in Syria, readying to attack the Assad regime at a moment’s notice, has been absent in the last year as Americans are told time and again that the plan to defeat ISIS is still in the works. Why Libya but not Iran? Why Assad but not ISIS? One is tempted to say that the standard is a purely charitable one: involve the military on behalf of some oppressed people of another country but abstain from doing so when the motivation would be purely selfish and based on American security. However, even this altruistic standard doesn’t explain Iran in 2009 or our continued tolerance of ISIS as Christians are purged from vast swaths of the Levant and minorities are subjected to all forms of unthinkable horror.
If there is any guiding principle at work in the current administration’s military policy, it is far from apparent and is masked by bland reassurances that the administration is acting on privileged information to which its critics are not privy. That is to say: from an accountability standpoint, it is meaningless. But with Democratic candidates’ focus trained on domestic issues and the race to buy votes with ever larger and more expensive social welfare programs, the issue of what a potential Democratic president considers a justifiable use of the US military remains a mystery. It is safe to say that we could expect the same eclecticism from Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders that we have seen from Barack Obama; without articulated standards, any commander in chief is likely to blow with the wind. Nonetheless, the race for 2016 is a prime opportunity for candidates like Webb and O’Malley to define in clear terms the standards under which the US military should be deployed and what its purposes should be in a given conflict. As for myself, I do not anticipate any candidate today, on the right or left, to embrace a wholly sound policy of rational self-interest. Nonetheless, there is an opportunity here and a hope that through principled thinking a Democratic candidate might distinguish himself by offering clear answers to these challenges. In a field of inherited and recycled ideas, he would stand out simply for having a set of unique views; all the better for him and for America if they happen to be good ones. As in all things, the moral is the practical.