October 30, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Obama Needs to Embrace His Wars

In 1941, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie formed the Almanac Singers. Their debut album, "Songs for John Doe," railed against those who wanted America to wade into World War II.

The folk singers weren't the only ones opposed to American "intervention." Aviator Charles Lindbergh spearheaded America First, a group dedicated to keeping the United States out of the fighting.

A Lindbergh rally in New York City's Madison Square Garden drew 20,000 followers. Indeed, in the spring of '41, polls suggested over 80 percent of Americans were against joining the war.

All that changed on Dec. 7. After Pearl Harbor, the vast majority of Americans supported the war. And it never appreciably wavered throughout the long and bloody conflict.

Even the Almanac Singers changed their tune. They rushed out a new album with songs like "Round and Round Hitler's Grave" supporting U.S. intervention.

Times have changed.

The 9/11 attacks prompted near-unanimous support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But a partisan divide in support for the long war emerged early on. That division has only gotten worse.

A recent study by Gary Jacobson from the University of California at San Diego reveals some stunning trends. Published in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Jacobson argues it's wrong to think of Iraq as Bush's war and Afghanistan as Obama's war.

"Large majorities of self-identified Republicans have continued to support both wars," he finds, with support for each conflict registering over 70 percent. In contrast, "the difference among Democrats was much wider, with support averaging 30 percent for the Afghan war compared with 16 percent for the Iraq War."

It's surprising that less than a third of self-identified Democrats can bring themselves to approve of even "Obama's War." But Jacobson notes that many of them seem to have developed "faulty memories" about even their own opinions.

Before the war, he notes, 71 percent of Democrats thought Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet in 2006-2008 surveys asking them to recall their prewar beliefs, only a third (33 percent) remembered believing Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

It's not the nation as a whole that is souring on finishing the job in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the president's party is.

Unlike with World War II, the leadership of the left never rallied round the flag after the nation suffered attack. They merely "held their peace" for a while.

After tomorrow's election, the president may find it increasingly difficult to hold his waning support. He might try to boost his political position by cutting defense spending and cutting and running in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The theory behind that option is that it would play well to the anti-war majority of his base while winning applause from fiscal conservatives. But even fiscal hawks are unlikely to buy the argument that you balance your budget by making the nation less safe and putting your troops at greater risk.

Another alternative: Obama could become a more serious national security president, embracing Reagan's old mantra of "peace through strength."

That approach would take national security off the table as a partisan issue. His base wouldn't like it, but he wouldn't pay a high price for getting tough with America's adversaries.

White House blustering aside, the Obama Doctrine has failed. Moving from foreign policy patsy to global leader with real backbone is what the free world really needs.

Ending the partisan warfare over war ought to be a key objective for the post-election White House. In the process, Obama would be giving the majority of Americans what they want: a president who stops compromising on national security.

Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Examiner