Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, a veteran of the Bush and Obama administrations, talked with David Ignatius yesterday about developments in Ukraine, but in the process, raised a larger point about the political debate.
On Ukraine, Gates acknowledged what’s plainly true: the U.S. has limited military option and Russia seems to “have the same high cards,” regardless of what we do.
But Ignatius also asked the former Pentagon chief about the near-constant sniping from congressional Republicans.
Gates, a Republican himself, urged the GOP senators to “tone down” their criticism and “try to be supportive of the president rather than natter at the president.”Gates can be an emotional person when he talks about national-security issues, as any reader of his recent memoir, “Duty,” can see. And he showed some of that emotion when he said, near the end of our conversation: “It seems to me that trying to speak with one voice – one American voice – seems to have become a quaint thing of the past. I regret that enormously.”
Reading the comments reminded me of the not-too-distant past, when Republicans had a very different perspective about how elected officials should conduct themselves during a foreign policy crisis.
Some college-aged readers may be too young to remember this well, but for much of the Bush/Cheney era, it was common to hear supporters of the Republican administration suggest criticizing the White House during a crisis was itself dangerous. I distinctly remember this Ed Koch piece, which the right enjoyed, published seven years ago this month.
Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are seeking to humble, embarrass and, if they can, destroy the President and the prestige of his position as the Commander-in-Chief who is responsible for the safety of our military forces and the nation’s defenses. By doing so, they are adding to the dangers that face our nation.
As long-time readers may recall, this was a common sentiment. Prominent conservatives would casually throw around words like “treason,” “traitor,” and “fifth columnists,” arguing that patriotism required presidential support during a crisis.
Indeed, public criticism from Democrats was deemed especially outrageous – to characterize the president as weak or inept was to invite foreign foes to act aggressively and test the United States.
That was the right’s line, right up until Election Day 2008, at which point dissent became the principal responsibility of all decent American patriots.
With Russia sparking a crisis by invading Ukrainian territory, prominent GOP voices didn’t much hesitate, first to praise Vladimir Putin for his bold leadership, then then to blame the United States for Russia’s aggression.
To be sure, these Republicans are well within their rights to speak this way. Democrats didn’t much care when the right tried to stifle dissent in the Bush/Cheney era, and it’d be an awful mistake to see anyone argue Americans should “watch what they say” now. Likewise, Bush-era talk about presidential criticism “emboldening” our enemies is not due for a comeback.
But Gates’ comments are nevertheless a reminder of the ways in which the unwritten rhetorical rules appear to have changed.