The killing of Osama bin Laden has greater potential to change the Democratic Party’s reputation on national security than any single event since Vietnam. It almost perfectly rewrites the narrative of Democratic weakness that Republicans have labored decades to build.
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First, the view that Democrats won’t use force. This was never true. Bill Clinton, after all, sent troops to Haiti, and bombed Bosnia and Kosovo. But barely anyone remembers those missions and because their rationale was humanitarian, they made the Democrats seem like armed social workers. The bin Laden operation, by contrast, was pure testosterone. Once U.S. intelligence tracked bin Laden to his compound, Obama chose the most aggressive option—a commando attack—rather than missile strikes, even though it risked U.S. deaths or hostages. In the mountains of Tora Bora, it’s worth remembering, George W. Bush made the opposite choice: deploying Afghan rather than American forces because he feared American casualties. And bin Laden got away.
• The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden CoverageSecond, the view that Democrats pray at the altar of international institutions and international law. Nonsense. Democrats are surely more multilateral than Republicans, but Clinton’s Kosovo war lacked United Nations approval and when U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali didn’t comply with American dictates, the Clinton administration unceremoniously dumped him. Obama has dramatically increased drone attacks, in Afpak and beyond, which shred international law. And this attack was so unilateral that we didn’t even consult with the “ally” on whose territory we carried it out. When Obama said he would strike in Pakistan without its permission during the campaign, few believed him; it didn’t play to type. Now it’s more likely they will.
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Third, Democrats can’t get along with the military. This stereotype contained more truth. Vietnam did alienate the military from liberals, particularly after George McGovern endorsed an amnesty for those who avoided the draft. Jimmy Carter’s failed Iranian hostage rescue symbolized a military that had been allowed to atrophy. And from gay soldiers to charges about his own draft dodging, Clinton fought a culture war with America’s warrior class that lasted his entire presidency. Obama, by contrast, is now fused in the public imagination with the most successful American military operation since Inchon. Symbolically, it’s the opposite of the Carter Iran mission; in fact, it’s America’s Entebbe. Had it happened a few weeks later, Fox News would be insisting it was all David Petraeus’ doing. Instead, Obama gets all the credit. Sean Hannity is reduced to complaining that Obama gave bin Laden an Islamic burial.
With the exception of his decision to surge in Afghanistan, Obama’s foreign policy has been reasonably good. He’s avoided the disastrous missteps that often plague new presidents. But until Sunday, his foreign policy had lacked “Jacksonian” appeal. Walter Russell Mead calls “Jacksonianism” (after Andrew Jackson) the foreign policy ethic born in the Indian wars of the American frontier. It’s populist, parochial and ferocious. Jacksonians don’t want to redeem the world; they’d just as soon ignore it. But when foreign threats emerge, they demand shock and awe.
That’s what Obama has now given them. He’s provided a “U.S.A., U.S.A.” moment at a time when Americans hadn’t had one for a long time. Three days ago, Republicans were getting ready to run against him for supposedly pursuing a foreign policy doctrine of “leading from behind.” Now all those generalities have evaporated. Obama has inoculated himself against charges that he’s soft on national security in a more visceral way than any Democrat in decades. Even getting out of Afghanistan will be easier now. Does he deserve all the praise he’s getting? Not quite; this was more a triumph for intelligence and Special Forces than for Obama’s foreign policy strategy. But for decades, Democrats have taken undeserved abuse. There will be less of that now, and for a long time to come.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.