THE BLOG
12/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Progressive National Security and the 2008 Election

Every four years, the American people reevaluate the direction of the country, on the policies and political leaders we want to lead the nation. This election came at a time when our country is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is struggling to eliminate Al Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan. The global economy is facing a serious crisis, and millions of Americans are questioning how they can afford to live today and save for tomorrow. Americans went to the polls seeking to revitalize our government's leadership at home and restore our leadership abroad at a time when optimism about both has fallen to an all time low.

On Tuesday, voters sent an overwhelmingly clear message: across the board, the progressive approach is best suited to lead America through these tough times. On the economy, on energy, on education and taxes, this certainly was true. And though for decades, conventional wisdom placed national security and foreign policy as a traditional conservative advantage, progressives regained the mantle of trust and leadership in this critical arena. While the election was a repudiation of the conservative worldview, it was also an overwhelming endorsement of the progressive alternative.

Progressives Gain the Higher Ground on National Security

The perception of conservative national security dominance dissolved this year. Progressives confidently asserted a unified and comprehensive vision on national security. They demonstrated a clear contrast with a conservative world view that had been unmistakably disastrous. The election itself was the final confirmation that voters were not only comfortable with a progressive approach to national security, but that they viewed it as overwhelmingly favorable compared to the opposition. This is validated by the fact that 158 of Obama's newspaper endorsements specifically cited foreign policy as an important reason for giving him their support.

The election:

* Offered real alternatives from the failed policies of the past eight years;
* Turned a longtime conservative advantage into a handicap;
* Splintered the conservative establishment as the public endorsed progressive approaches;

Offered real alternatives from the failed policies of the past eight years. From Iraq, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Iran, to Europe, McCain's policies were very much in line with President Bush's, and his differences tended to make him appear more, rather than less, hawkish. He advocated a continued focus on Iraq that would leave little time for threats from Afghanistan and Al Qaeda's safe haven in Pakistan. Obama opposed the invasion, arguing that it would distract us from the fight against Al Qaeda. He has called for a responsible redeployment of American forces and a refocusing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. McCain was relentlessly confrontational towards Iran, rather than supporting the diplomacy advocated recently by five former secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Jim Baker, Madeleine Albright, and Warren Christopher. Obama believed that tough and direct diplomacy must be part of a strategy for stopping Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability. McCain took an abrasive line with NATO allies, calling them "vacuous and posturing" in the run up to the Iraq war, and last week stated that he may not meet with the Spanish Prime Minister. Obama promised to strengthen our ties with Europe, and his popularity there offers real possibilities.

Conservatives found a longtime advantage to be a handicap.
Because of his military credentials and time in Washington, McCain was expected to have the advantage on national security issues. However, his candidacy was plagued by "gaffes": confusing Shi'a and Sunni, not understanding the Iranian leadership structure; misunderstanding the series of events that led to the Anbar Awakening; consistently referring to Czechoslovakia - a country that hasn't existed for fifteen years; and failing to be able to articulate a clear understanding of our relationship with Spain. Obama not only held his own, he conveyed a command of not simply of facts, but of the complexities of foreign policy questions. His call for an end to the war in Iraq and shift in focus to our terrorist enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan reflected the direction Americans wanted to go. Voters were looking for concrete policy proposals. On Russia they chose between a candidate who jumped at the first opportunity to talk tough - or one who realizes that kicking Russia out of the G8 and casually threatening war over Georgia would mean the end of any cooperation on the critical issue of nuclear weapons. On terrorism, they chose between a candidate who lumps Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda together and advocated invading Iraq to fight terrorism, and one who understands that each of these entities needs to be dealt with differently and that invading other countries is not the only way to counter terrorism. On energy, American voters chose between a platform based primarily on the short-term solution of offshore drilling and a long-term comprehensive plan that reduces American dependence on oil.

As the conservative movement splintered, the public endorsed progressive approaches.
Colin Powell's endorsement of Senator Obama signified the culmination of a long simmering split within the conservative foreign policy establishment between neoconservatives and pragmatists. The Republican foreign policy establishment was once dominated by foreign policy realists and pragmatists such as Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, and Robert Gates. However, following the events of September 11th, the neoconservative world view advocated by Vice President Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Richard Perle, and John Bolton became ascendant, causing tremendous tension within the Bush administration. As the neoconservative experiment in Iraq has proven to be a failure, pragmatists have reasserted some authority in the final years of the Bush administration. But the Iraq War has undoubtedly deepened the divide. In this election, John McCain represented a continuation of the neoconservative foreign policy philosophy: He lined up with the neoconservative on Iraq. Rejecting the views of Defense Secretary Gates and many others, he refused to consider negotiations with Iran. His hard-line response to the Russia crisis echoes that of John Bolton, not Henry Kissinger or George Schultz, who have both advocated caution. And McCain's approach to dealing with our allies, creating a new League of Democracies, is opposed by pragmatists and supported by Neoconservatives such as Robert Kagan. As a result, a number of pragmatists broke with the Republican nominee. Senator Richard Lugar, former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, endorsed Obama's view towards diplomacy. Brent Scowcroft, former national security advisor to George H.W. Bush, refused to endorse either candidate, as did Republican Chuck Hagel, whose foreign policy views are clearly in line with Obama's.

In the end, this election showcased a deepened public understanding that critical decisions and situations at home have ramifications abroad, and vice versa: the financial crisis, energy security, homeland security, counter-terrorism. Progressives responded with ideas and proposals that reflect the direction Americans want to undertake. Unlike past elections, no team "lost" the election. Progressives won, because their ideas of how to put America on the right track reflect those of the American people.