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Julian E. Zelizer

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Learn From History Mr. President: Articulate Your National Security Vision Or Pay the Political Price

Posted: 01/25/10 09:50 AM ET

President George H.W. Bush once admitted that he was not good at the "Vision Thing." He was not able to convey a broader agenda that outlined the direction in which he wanted to move the country.

President Obama has suffered from the vision thing as well, both on national security and domestic policy. One of the distinguishing characteristics about the current Commander-in-Chief has been a reluctance to put forth arguments that explain what his White House is all about. As numerous commentators have observed, President Obama is a pragmatist, a politician who responds to events and works within the limits imposed by institutions rather than trying to shape and transform them.

This has certainly been the case with national security. This is ironic, given that Obama's campaign during the Democratic primaries centered on his opposition to the War in Iraq and to key components of the war on terrorism, such as the use of torture. Obama successfully contrasted himself to Senator Hillary Clinton, who his campaign said waffled on issues rather than taking firm stands. Obama claimed to offer clarity while his opponent only provided centrism and inconsistency. Some Obama supporters charged that Clinton was nothing more than "Bush-lite" when it came to national security.

But in his first year as president, Obama lost much of his campaign clarity in terms of what he hopes to accomplish on national security. To be sure, there are exceptions to this pattern. Obama has attempted to launch multilateral dialogues and he has announced an end to the use of torture by counterterrorism officials. Obama has also engaged in diplomacy to try to cool down key hot spots around the globe.

Yet in many other respects there has been more continuity than change. With the war in Iraq, President Obama has essentially followed the plan that was laid out by the Bush administration for withdrawing troops. Most the counterterrorism program from the post 9/11 period remains in place. Though he had announced that Guantanamo would be closed, the facility remains open. When the president announced that he would increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, Obama expanded on one of the key policies from the Bush years.

While President Bush championed preemptive war, regime change, aggressive interrogation techniques and unilateralism in the fight against terrorism, it is thus far much harder to discern Obama's overriding strategy on national security.

Playing defense on national security can quickly turn into a huge political liability for presidents. One of the worst cases was President Lyndon Johnson, who took office in November 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson entered the White House as a product of 1950s America. He was haunted by fears of the Republican Right--a cohort in the GOP who had spent the 1950s attacking Democrats for having "lost" China to communism in 1949, for failing to pursue alleged communist spies within the U.S., and for getting the U.S. bogged down in a military stalemate in Korea. These Republicans had undermined the political advantage achieved by FDR on national security in WWII, taking control of the White House and Congress in 1952 after raising the question of whether Democrats were weak on defense. Johnson's primary response was to prove that he and Democrats were equally tough against foreign adversaries. In the process, he accelerated America's involvement in Vietnam. In the end, the move did little to protect him from conservatives, who continued to attack him for not doing enough in Vietnam while he also lost the support of liberals.

Another president who failed to communicate his vision on national security was President Jimmy Carter. In contrast to Johnson, Carter began his presidency by advancing a strong set of arguments about changing the direction of foreign policy: institutionalizing human rights policy, diminishing tensions in Latin America with the Panama Canal Treaties and supporting diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East. Following the midterm elections of 1978, however, when conservatives increased their numbers in both chambers, Carter increasingly tried to mimic the arguments of the right by calling for higher levels of defense spending and adopting a more adversarial posture toward the Soviet Union. Carter's agenda became blurred and it was increasingly difficult to tell what he actually stood for. The posture did not protect him from attacks either. Conservatives called him a dove; liberals charged he was a hawk. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was able to challenge Carter through a campaign that centered on a strong anti-communist argument with the promise to focus on increasing defense spending in order to achieve "peace through strength."

Presidents who have offered the nation a clear sense of vision on national security have often benefited politically. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, President Kennedy started to move away from his hawkish campaign rhetoric of 1960 by emphasizing the centrality of negotiation with the Soviet Union. He resisted political pressure from hawks and Republicans to use force against Cuba and, despite strong conservative resistance, pushed for the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Similarly, Reagan continued to champion his vision of peace through strength throughout his presidency. While his arguments did not insulate him from political opposition, his reputation among the public gave him some political room to maneuver when he accepted an opportunity to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987 over arms reduction, a move that many conservatives strongly opposed.  

The ways in which presidents have handled the politics of national security is one of the central issues in my new book, "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security--From World War II to the War on Terrorism". While my history of how politics never stopped at the water's edge reveals many dimensions to the challenges that politicians have faced when dealing with these questions and does not provide any single path toward political success, one thing is clear: presidents who don't articulate some kind of distinct national security agenda leave themselves open to continual attack from their opponents and often fall into a defensive posture while trying to formulate their policies.  By trying to avoid angering everyone, they often end up pleasing no one. These presidents don't create the political conditions that are needed to pursue major policy breakthroughs in how America interacts with the world.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism" published by Basic Books.