Rupert Cornwell: Who'd have thought it? Democrats are the new he-men

Out of America: Obama's common-sense hawkishness confounds received wisdom and may win him re-election

Share
Related Topics

A remarkable role reversal has occurred in US politics. The wimps have become the he-men. Or more precisely, the Democrats have taken over from the Republicans as the party Americans most trust to keep the country safe. Not since the days of JFK has this happened, and the transformation could just tip the outcome of November's election.

Last week was, of course, the perfect time for Barack Obama to showcase his achievements. It saw the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden and a dramatic visit to Kabul, during which he delivered a prime-time speech to his compatriots, 7,000 miles away, on how he would end the unpopular Afghan war. According to every poll, the public believes, for the first time since the Vietnam War, that the Democrats are the best bet on foreign policy and national security.

The Republicans' reputation was basically made by Nixon and Kissinger, while that of the Democrats was further tarnished by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Tehran hostage crisis, both on Jimmy Carter's watch. Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, is universally credited with strength and statesmanship in his dealings with Moscow. The end of the Cold War, and the masterfully executed war to drive Iraq from Kuwait, came under Reagan's successor, George H W Bush – to this day, the embodiment of a Republican safe pair of hands.

The Democrats, meanwhile, were all over the shop. The image of diminutive Michael Dukakis, the party's 1988 nominee, with his helmeted head poking out of a battle tank, ranks among the most disastrous photo-ops in history. Dukakis as commander-in-chief? No thanks. Four years later, Bill Clinton did win, but his flabby salute, his initial focus on gays in the military and the "Black Hawk Down" humiliation in Mogadishu quickly stamped him as an amateur in national security matters. When he did act tough in 1998, by bombing Iraq and alleged terrorist sites in Africa, it was widely seen as a diversion from the unfolding Monica Lewinsky affair.

Indeed, by the time the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11, even liberals were prepared to concede that George W Bush's theft of the 2000 election might have been a blessing in disguise. With Colin Powell at the State Department and Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, it was said, at least grown-ups would be in charge during the tumultuous period ahead.

As the Iraq debacle proved, such confidence was misplaced. But the Republican mystique lingered long enough to help Bush to re-election in 2004. Since then, it's been downhill all the way.

In 2008, John McCain, a war hero, threw away that advantage by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. And this time around, the Republican primary campaign has plumbed new depths of fatuity, featuring the likes of Herman Cain (he of "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan") and Newt "the Palestinians are an invented people" Gingrich. Most candidates sought only to outdo each other in unthinking hawkishness, berating Obama for his failure to "stand up for America".

In this festival of infantilism Mitt Romney came across as a comparative adult. But, like the Bourbons, his party seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Who, for instance, might be a Romney secretary of state? The name most often heard is that of John Bolton. Yes, Bolton whose hawkishness made even Senate Republicans queasy when Bush wanted to make him UN envoy in 2005.

All of the above left a huge opportunity for Obama. His first clever move was to persuade Bob Gates, that emblem of Republican competence, to stay on as Secretary of Defense. But that would have counted little had he not shown he was up to the job.

Make no mistake, this Democrat is anything but squeamish over the use of US power. Obama may have let Europe be the visible leader in Libya and wound down the war in Iraq. But in December 2009, against the advice of many advisers, he ordered a surge in Afghanistan, and has used drones against terrorists, infringing Pakistan's sovereignty in the process. And then, of course, there's Osama bin Laden. If Obama is to be pigeonholed, it is as a hawk – but a common-sense hawk. In this, he has been nothing if not consistent. "I don't oppose all wars... what I oppose is a dumb war," the then Illinois state senator declared in October 2002, as George W's legions massed on Iraq's borders. That remains his basic approach. The real surprise is that the role most comfortably assumed by a young first-term senator with no executive experience is that of commander-in-chief. He comes across as he is: cool and analytical, yet ready to take a risk (when he authorised the Seals to take out Bin Laden, he overruled both Gates and his vice-president).

Obama's decisiveness only underlines the paradox of US elections. Usually, the fuss is about domestic policy – above all, the economy, where a president's power to change things is limited. Foreign policy counts for little, but it is where, for better or worse, he has virtually free rein. This time, it could be different: the economy may yet decide the outcome in November. However, in a close race, perceived foreign policy competence could make the crucial difference – in favour of the wimps turned he-men.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Photo match: Nicola Sturgeon on the balance beam on 27 April. Just like that other overnight sensation, Russian Olympian Olga Korbut, in 1972  

Election catch-up: SNP surge, Ed Balls’s giraffe noises, and Cameron’s gaffe

John Rentoul
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk