War Stories

A Changing of the Guard

The Democratic Party is now the dominant foreign-policy party.

Vice-president Biden is introduced at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Vice-president Biden is introduced at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

The conventions these past two weeks—and particularly the final speeches Thursday night—have cemented the fact that the Democratic party is now the party of national-security policy; not just a wise or thoughtful foreign and military policy, but any kind of thinking whatsoever about matters beyond the water’s edge.

For anyone who’s followed American politics the past 40 years, since the election between George McGovern and Richard Nixon, this is a staggering shift.

It was the Democrats who talked Thursday night of their president’s “backbone” and “courage,” of the clear message he sent—as Vice President Joe Biden put it when talking about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound—that “if you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the ends of the world.” By contrast, Biden recalled, Republican challenger Mitt Romney once said that it wasn’t worth “moving heaven and earth, and spending billions of dollars, just to catch one person.”

More extraordinary still, it was the Democrats who saluted, mourned, and celebrated the “fallen angels” and “wounded warriors” of the U.S. military. Romney observed no such ritual, leaving Sen. John Kerry to note, in his speech Thursday night, never before had a wartime nominee for president, of either party, “failed to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech.”

Not even the Republican convention’s foreign-policy surrogate, Condoleezza Rice, said much about the veterans—or anything at all about the Iraq or Afghanistan war, even though she had been George W. Bush’s most trusted foreign policy adviser for all eight years of his presidency and had thus played a big role in starting those wars.

The clearest sign of the change in party dynamics was this: The Democrats feel so assured in their new role as guardians of national defense that they also talked openly about seeking peace, negotiating arms-reduction treaties with the Russians (which Romney opposes on the flimsiest of grounds), withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and shifting money that was once spent on fighting wars to revitalizing our own cities—as Obama put it, “to do some nation-building right here at home.”

Contrast this with the 2004 Democratic Convention, where Sen. Kerry, as the nominee, felt so desperate to prove his bona fides as a tough warrior—despite his very real record as a decorated Swift Boat officer in the Vietnam War—that he did not even mention (he felt it would be imprudent) his outspoken protest of the war as leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he returned from fighting.

Romney has done so little to shore up his lack of experience in foreign policy that Kerry, Biden, and Obama—the Democrats’ main speakers Thursday night—felt no qualms about simply dismissing him as an unserious man, even making fun of him.

Kerry noted that Romney has taken “every position” on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Libyan intervention: opposing withdrawal, then supporting it; criticizing Obama for moving too slowly, then too strongly. “Talk about being ‘for it before you were against it,’ ” Kerry quipped, borrowing the phrase that he once disastrously uttered about a budget measure, thus prompting Republicans in 2004 to ridicule him as a “flip-flopper.”

President Obama was even more casual in what can fairly be called, at least on these issues, his contempt for the Republican nominee. Romney’s depiction of Russia as America’s “number-one geostrategic foe” reveals that he’s “still stuck in a Cold War mind-warp,” Obama said—adding, in a reference to Romney’s disastrous trip to England this summer, “You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

Romney and Ryan “are new to foreign policy,” Obama said, barely containing a smirk. Yes, Obama was once new to it as well, though not as new—he’d at least served actively on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he picked a running mate, Joe Biden, who was seasoned. The more pertinent point the Democrats were making at their convention, though, is that Obama is not remotely new now.

On one point, the Democrats exaggerated their president’s accomplishment. The troop-withdrawal from Iraq was negotiated on Bush’s watch. It was part of the Status of Forces Agreement, signed by U.S. and Iraqi officials on Nov. 17, 2008. The Obama administration later negotiated the points of transition toward complete withdrawal, no small thing; but the end of the war was set under Bush.

Then again, this accord was completed after Obama’s victory in the 2008 election. If Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, had won, it’s an open question whether Bush would have gone ahead with the deal. McCain opposed the pullout at the time and still thinks it was a big mistake. What does Romney think? What would he have done? That’s still less clear.

Murkiest of all is the question of what happened to the Republican Party as a player—as the presumptive leader—in foreign affairs. It’s not healthy, either for this election or for the state of American democracy, to have just one of the two major parties take so much as a serious interest in the subject, even if—by evidence of the past few years—it’s the better of those parties.