National security & 2016
U.S. national security was one of the determining issues in 2014’s Senate and House elections, measurably contributing to significant Republican victories. Contrary to the political conventional wisdom, American voters clearly understand that the federal government’s most important responsibility is guarding them against foreign threats. As Adam Smith wrote in “The Wealth of Nations,” “The first duty of the sovereign (is) that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies … .”
Moreover, as important as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global instability and Ebola were last Tuesday, these and similar issues will be even more salient in 2016’s presidential contest. The foreign threats and challenges facing the United States will not be diminishing. In fact, our adversaries are calibrating their policies to take maximum advantage of the Obama administration’s remaining two years, sensing a precious opportunity to advance their respective agendas before a new, and potentially stronger and more competent, president assumes office.
Political operatives and media commentators have long ignored the American public’s inherent pragmatism on national security. While most people understandably focus on issues closest to them, particularly the domestic economy, this hardly proves they are uninterested in international threats and challenges. Quite the contrary. As the practical people they are, U.S. citizens expect the officials they send to Washington to master the intricacies of national-security issues. In effect, voters delegate the operational aspects of foreign and defense policy to their representatives in Washington, especially the president.
What Americans do not delegate, however, is holding those leaders responsible for the consequences of their policies. Throughout our history, voters have equated foreign-policy vision and competence with the critical quality of leadership. Presidents (and members of Congress) are expected to defend the country’s international interests, to speak to their fellow citizens as adults about foreign threats and to propose effective solutions. The people understand instinctively that ignoring external dangers makes them neither disappear nor easier to resolve. The opposite is true: Problems become only harder when allowed to fester and grow. Of course, we often disagree on the best policies and sometimes must be shocked into action, as after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But as a people, we have never failed to do what was necessary.
When the leaders are manifestly not fulfilling their responsibilities, the voters speak, as they just did in key 2014 races. President Obama has strained for six years to avoid national-security policy, seeing international affairs as distracting from his primary objective, expressed during the 2008 campaign, to “fundamentally transform” America.
Inevitably, however, reality has a way of intruding on ideology and indifference. The rise of ISIS, its brutal beheadings of U.S. citizens and others, and the threat of Ebola convinced Americans in late 2014 that Obama and his fellow Democrats were not paying attention or, perhaps even worse, that they were not competent to fulfill their basic obligation to protect the country. All the while, the American people were silently awaiting politicians willing to speak the obvious truth. If Obama could or would not perform that basic duty, voters concluded they would have to express their disapproval at the polls. And they did.
Ironically, until the 2014 campaign, Republicans collectively did not adequately critique either Obama’s failures or his basic inattention to national security. Fortunately, however, some candidates woke up in time. In Arkansas, freshman Congressman Tom Cotton campaigned for the Senate by expressly making foreign and defense policy key issues, with his military service in Iraq and Afghanistan establishing his bona fides. In Iowa, Joni Ernst, also an Iraq veteran, ran an insurgent campaign, shocking the political commentariat by defeating her Democrat opponent, once thought to be the sure winner. Ernst’s most famous television commercial boasted of her qualifications: “mother, soldier, conservative.” Thom Tillis in North Carolina fought off an isolationist challenger in the Republican primary and made his Democrat opponent’s lack of attention to international terrorism a critical issue in his victory.
Some GOP candidates who stressed national-security issues did not win, but their emphasis on foreign and defense policy brought them agonizingly close to victory. Scott Brown in New Hampshire came from a double-digit deficit against incumbent Democrat Jeane Shaheen by stressing national- and border-security issues and nearly won an upset victory. Brown’s loss is a great shame, but it was his stress on national security that brought him almost to victory.
In 2016, of course, the presidential election will be front and center, but control of Congress will again be at stake. National-security issues will only grow in political importance. Democrats seem poised to nominate Hillary Clinton for president, and arguably her only qualification will be her tenure as secretary of State. Can anyone doubt that critiquing her unswerving support for and implementation of Obama’s foreign policies will be key to the campaign of whomever Republicans nominate to oppose her?
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.