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5 myths about political hawks and doves

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By Julian E. Zelizer
Sunday, January 17, 2010

Since the botched Christmas bombing plot, many of the president's Republican critics have tried to portray him as soft on national security. "Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war?" Dick Cheney asked. Democrats get nervous when the conversation turns to these questions; they're used to being unfavorably stereotyped as doves -- or worse, wimps -- while the GOP is portrayed as hawkish and strong on defense. But a look back at the past 60 years finds plenty of Democratic hawks, Republican doves and any number of curious crossbreeds.

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1. Most Republican presidents have been hawks.

While Republicans often talk like hawks, they don't usually end up governing that way. Dwight Eisenhower, who was elected president on the strength of his reputation as a war hero, spent his time in the White House fighting to cut military spending and ended his presidency with an address warning of a "military-industrial complex."

In the 1950s, Richard Nixon was known as a committed anti-communist, and in the 1960s, he railed against Lyndon Johnson for not using America's full arsenal in the Vietnam War. Once he became president, he broadened operations in Cambodia and Laos and authorized a brutal bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese. But there was another side to Nixon, one that contributed to his landslide reelection in 1972. From his presidency's start, he hoped to undercut the antiwar movement by ending the conflict. "The president should become known next year," said Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman in 1970, "as 'Mr. Peace.' " Through Nixon's Vietnamization policy, the United States gradually withdrew its forces from Vietnam and ended the draft.

Most important, Nixon's policy of detente aimed to ease Cold War tensions. In 1972, the United States and the Soviets signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Nixon visited communist China, shocking conservatives.

Even Ronald Reagan, who early in his presidency talked tough against the Soviets, proposed a vast increase in defense spending and launched covert wars in Central America, changed dramatically over his time in office. Between 1985 and 1987, he conducted arms-control negotiations with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. And even though some Republicans accused him of appeasement -- the right-wing activist Howard Phillips called him the Kremlin's "useful idiot" -- he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which helped reduce tensions between the two superpowers.

2. Americans consistently prefer hawkish leaders.

Many presidents have promoted alternatives to military force and remained popular. John F. Kennedy rejected the advice of military officials who urged him to strike Cuba during the missile crisis. And in 1963, Kennedy signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. "I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war," he said that year, ". . . but we have no more urgent task." Kennedy enjoyed an average approval rating of 70 percent.

And despite being stereotyped as doves, Democrats have often waged effective campaigns against Republican hawks. Johnson launched a devastatingly effective television advertisement -- the famous "Daisy" mushroom cloud ad -- warning voters that GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would lead the nation into nuclear war.

In 2008, Barack Obama positioned himself as the candidate who would change the way the war on terror was fought, while John McCain ran as a hawk, emphasizing his support for the "surge" in Iraq and his background as a Vietnam veteran. It was Obama, who championed diplomacy and multilateralism, advocated withdrawing troops from Iraq and criticized Bush's counterterrorism tactics, who won.

3. Republican presidents believe in the use of overwhelming military force.

Traditionally, Republicans have not been interested in using all-out force. Since early in the Cold War, they have argued that Americans can win wars without requiring great sacrifice from the citizenry, they've advocated airpower over ground troops, and they've supported a limited professional Army rather than a draft. They have wanted to win, but cheaply, quickly and without long-term commitments.

George H.W. Bush led the nation through two military operations, the first to capture Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and the second to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But while he followed the "Powell doctrine," which said that when the United States uses force it should be overwhelming, his objectives were limited. In the case of Iraq, Bush said from the outset that he had no interest in regime change, and he stuck to that promise after a swift victory in Kuwait.

4. George W. Bush was the ultimate hawk.

Without question, Cheney and the neocon advisers who surrounded Bush during his first term pushed an aggressive response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The resulting "Bush doctrine" endorsed regime change and led to two wars and the cessation of diplomatic relations with hostile regimes, among other things.

Yet by his second term, Bush had started to back away from some of his positions. He played down threats of military action against countries such as North Korea and Iran. By some accounts, Cheney became extremely frustrated with the growing influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and with the president's shift away from a harder position against terrorism and toward greater cooperation with allies. Cheney's ally, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was replaced by Robert Gates, who argued that the war in Iraq was not working and that changes to strategy were needed. And after Bush ordered a "surge" of troops in 2007 to stabilize conditions in Iraq, he agreed to a schedule for withdrawing troops and turning power over to the Iraqis.

5. Democrats may pretend to be hawkish but remain dovish at heart.

To the contrary, hawkish Democrats have a proud tradition. Harry Truman worked with a Republican Congress to create the Cold War national security state in 1947 and 1948. And in promoting what came to be known as the Truman doctrine -- a policy whereby the United States committed to helping anti-communist forces around the globe -- he used bellicose rhetoric, following Sen. Arthur Vandenberg's advice to "scare the hell out of the American people."

In the 1950s, a group of Senate Democrats, including Missouri's Stuart Symington and Washington's Henry "Scoop" Jackson, attacked Eisenhower's campaign to cut military spending and warned that the country was endangered by a "missile gap" -- an idea Kennedy exploited in his 1960 campaign. In the 1970s, Jackson became one of the most vocal advocates in either party of a more aggressive stance against the Soviets, and led a group of neoconservative Democrats in pushing for more defense spending and opposing arms-control negotiations.

Bill Clinton reinvigorated his party's national security credentials by authorizing military operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and bombing Iraq several times. He also made early strikes against al-Qaeda, as in the summer of 1998, when he responded to the bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa by attacking suspected al-Qaeda sites in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Most recently, Obama has authorized sending more troops to Afghanistan. The sight of a Democrat ramping up a war started by a Republican goes to show that, however dovish or hawkish members of the two parties may sound on the public stage, what they do when it comes time to govern is a different matter.

Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism."


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