Small Wars Journal

Partisan Politics: Clear and Present Danger

Thu, 10/03/2013 - 4:17pm

Partisan Politics:  Clear and Present Danger

Butch Bracknell

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, nascent in the 1940s as America emerged from the greatest war in history and ascendant into the 1970s, marked a watershed achievement in equality and human rights in our nation’s history.  Civil rights leaders Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Medgar Evers and Thurgood Marshal, among others, worked tirelessly not only to change the law – giving African-Americans increased rights and protections under the law to political rights, housing and employment free from discrimination – but also to change American culture and attitudes toward racial integration and reconciliation.  An impressive achievement in its own right, the Civil Rights Movement stood also as a signal of American commitment to equality, achievement, and community, a clearly preferable alternative to the competing system of Communism.  The Civil Rights Movement was carefully watched worldwide, but particularly in South America and Africa, as democracy and capitalism competed with communist totalitarianism for dominance on each continent.[i]  The legislative, judicial, and social changes sounded a clarion call to people in developing societies to make a choice between the American brand of progressive, rights-centric, and sustainable democracy as a model, or the Soviet brand of repression and despotism.  Democracy, however imperfect, prevailed.  Today, communism is marginalized in both regions.

What, then, does the developing world make of the current brand of legislative gridlock and social intolerance that prevails in the American political system today?  Partisans struggle to defund the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act before the administration has had a chance to see if it actually works as designed.  Generally, legislative compromise is largely dead.  Americans are at each others’ throats over gun legislation, tax policy, government spending, national security surveillance, and immigration reform.  The media has devolved into camp followers, with MSNBC on one side and Fox on the other, with each constantly accusing the other of bad faith and dishonestly, rather than merely harboring a different ideology.  Public actors are in constant crisis mode.  They no longer discuss – they vilify.  They no longer compromise – they indulge near constant confrontation.  They no longer act like statesmen – they act as pure partisans.  They threaten to shut down government over single issue brinksmanship.  They no longer budget – they sequester.  If this is the lowly level to which democracy has devolved, one might understand if the developing world looked at some of the alternatives.

If there is a concept that could produce compromise in the political process and reintroduce civility into our political process, it could be national security.  It could be lawmakers and key actors in the executive branch coming to understand that the world is watching, and is making choices about which systems to emulate, with whom to partner and ally, and whom to resist.  America must get back to a position in which our nation is, in fact, seen as exceptional and worthy of emulation.  The prestige of America is priceless, yet our political system squanders it month by month with endless partisan bickering and one-up-manship.  What if the parties actually placed the national interest, and the nation’s security, above party interest?  What party leaders are willing and able to lead a negotiation for such a détente?  Is it so unreasonable to think that a handful of real statesmen could rise on both sides of the aisle and negotiate a political code of conduct that would set general limitations on the harshness of advocacy and the personal attacks and vilification?  Might we not look to the security, prestige and stature of our nation as adequate justification to act politically with a little more decorum.

[i] Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights:  Race and the Image of American Democracy.  Princeton University Press, July 2011, 360pp.



Interested Observer

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 4:26pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


"Containment has served to shift America off of our Constitutional foundation. It has shifted the balance of power from the Congress to the Executive. Now all politics in DC is a competition for that sole prize."

That comment is fascinating. Have we become used to, and maybe too often comfortable with, giving our Chief Executive too much power?

The shift has seemingly served us well at times (or at least we've taken comfort in it) - especially as electric media became the main source of global communication. Every time our Presidents speak to cameras, they engage in foreign policy. But, you're right . . . the shift (and it has been a long time in the making) has caused problems. It's gone too far and the balance has been tipped too long.

Beyond my revelation from that statement . . .

Are we in a foreign policy/strategy vacuum - re-accessing threats and priorities? If so, doesn't that give us an opportunity to engage in diagnostics? Who leads the charge to diagnose and cure?

Perhaps the response of the public, press, and Congress to potential action in Syria indicates we are ready to even the playing field again.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 1:44pm


Your admiration for how American governance ultimately addressed the growing Civil Rights insurgency (best COIN effort by the US, bar none); and equal frustration for the current era of gridlock are both well placed.

We did not get to this place overnight, however. In fact, I am coming to believe that the current state of politics in Washington is but one more casualty/negative side effect of our decision so long ago to dedicate our nation to a strategy of containment as our response to the Soviet threat. We had options, and containment was but one. In the end the Soviet system ultimately collapsed, probably due far more to the unsustainability of what they attempted than to any action of ours, but containment did not fail. We don't know, however, if it worked. But it was also a very expensive strategy with direct and indirect long-term consequences that we are just now starting to really feel in substantially painful ways.

Containment forced us to sustain a warfighting military through nearly 70 years of peace. That military came at great fiscal and social cost. It also enabled a long series of Presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, to commit the nation to a long series of what our history books call "wars" but what in fact were all highly avoidable conflicts of choice.

Containment also forced us to abandon or severely compromise several core principals of what actually once made America "exceptional." We entered the cold war as an advocate for "self-determination" but when Mao prevailed in China and the dominoes of SEA threatened to fall we had to abandon that cornerstone of Americanism and replace it with a far narrower advocacy of "democracy." After all, what could be more democratic than self-determination, regardless of what form of government some people ultimately determined was best for them. Suddenly we knew best. We also stepped away from broad principles such as "all men created equal" and replaced it with narrow judgmental values of the modern American interpretation being the "enduring, universal" measure of what right looks like.

Containment has served to shift America off of our Constitutional foundation. It has shifted the balance of power from the Congress to the Executive. Now all politics in DC is a competition for that sole prize.

Containment has contributed to a massive debt.

Containment set the conditions for the Anti-American sentiments leveraged by AQ as they conduct UW across those Middle Eastern countries who found their own political development frozen by our containment efforts. A casualty of their own self-serving leadership at home, and our greater interest of preventing Soviet expansion into the region from abroad. We rolled back our containment intrusions in Europe and the Far East, but let it ride in the Middle East. And what a ride it has been.

We officially replaced containment with the highly ideological approach of "we make ourselves safer when we make others more like us" contained in the past several renditions of our National Security Strategy. It is an idea that sounds good in certain circles, but one that is built on an unproven theory and that is perceived widely as arrogant and judgmental abroad.

We need to get back onto our foundation. We need to recognize and repair the damage at home and abroad caused by containment, and we need to devise a new strategic framework that is far less ideological and far more pragmatic than our current model. We can do this. But first we must diagnose the problem, and the current political gridlock is not the problem, it is just one more symptom of who we have become.


Thu, 10/10/2013 - 12:15pm

In reply to by Interested Observer

Interested Observer:

Remember the scene The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya says "Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up."? Well this is how I sum up your comment.

'Carl, you could have been a good boy and taken the high road. But no, you took the low road and are a bad boy.'

As far as 'ad hominem' being slung about so freely around here, I am getting the idea that 'ad hominem' is a synonym for 'forcefully disagree' (or something like that).

Mr. Bracknell is talking about domestic politics, a subject on which all of us have equal standing. As such, I will address him as Mr. Bracknell. When speaking of military matters, and especially military matters that address the USMC, I will address him as LTC Bracknell because then his rank will have some meaning and applicability to the discussion.

Interested Observer

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 11:59am

In reply to by carl

Carl, I am going to assume (although I have no ability to know what is in your heart and mind) you reacted viscerally to one clause of the original essay. I assume that clause is the inconclusive one which addresses the ACA. Everything else in the essay calls on both sides to stop bickering and work together. The points were, I inferred, twofold: we need to present ourselves better to the world for the sake of our security; and, we should be able to agree on issues of security.

Because you read this blog I’ll also assume you agree with me that its purpose is to encourage intellectual discussion.

I submit you might have invoked “Publius” in an initial objective response. You may have argued that what is occurring in our Government is an attempt by responsible elected officials to discreetly manage our Nation’s finances and resources and “re-establish” credit. You could have suggested that, according to Jay (a/k/a Publius), these officials are trying to strengthen our position so that other nations “will act toward us accordingly.” (Federalist No. 4) I would concede, if it’d been made, that it would have been a good argument. It might have fostered really good discussion.

But, you didn’t offer an initial objective response. You dismissed Lt. Col. Bracken’s (I’m not of the class of people who can refer to him as “Mr.”) essay in its entirety. You attacked without objectivity and ignored the opportunity to intelligently discuss how and why the conduct of our Nation’s elected officials (those officials who oversee our foreign policy and who are charged with deciding when and where to use force for security) impacts our National Security. While you might not give a “rat's asset” what the rest of the world thinks about our Country, Publius did.

In parting, you observe that “one man's ad hominem is another's brilliant insight.” I submit that ad hominem attacks are only “brilliant insight” to their originators and, perhaps, those absorbed in their own subjectivity.

Tom Murphy


Thu, 10/10/2013 - 11:29am

In reply to by Butch_Bracknell

Mr. Bracknell:

I reiterate the point I made above. You don't know the circumstances of the people who choose to use a pseudonym on this forum, people like gute, Wolverine57, Madhu, Inerested Observer, BLFJR and major.rod. You don't know at all. As I said perhaps they have extremely good reasons for doing so. That is for them to decide. I think it would be wise to judge what they write by the content of what they write, not by whether they choose to use a full name or not. The authors of The Federalist chose to use a pseudonym when they published. It doesn't matter that some figured they knew who wrote what, when they went public, public, they chose to use a pseudonym. That hasn't hurt the reputation of The Federalist over the centuries. It has been judged by the quality of the ideas it contained. I think we would be wise to do the same thing on this forum.

Gee, I always kind of liked the name Carl. My Mom did too. What a letdown.


Thu, 10/10/2013 - 10:13am

In reply to by carl

"Peeved" is an emotional term. I'm not emotional at all. Just disappointed.

Nice try with Publius. Every single one of Publius' contemporaries knew EXACTLY who they were, and ostensibly they used the moniker to honor the birth of the Roman republic, as a signal that American independence would be similarly noble. Kind of hard to assign such a lofty pedigree to "Carl".


Thu, 10/10/2013 - 12:06am

In reply to by Butch_Bracknell

Boys, me thinks Mr. Bracknell is a wee bit peeved at us.

Now Mr. Bracknell, I will not contest your use of "ah hominem". After all, one man's ad hominem is another's brilliant insight. But another thing I will dispute. You don't know major.rod's nor Wolverine57's circumstances. Not at all. Perhaps they have extremely good reasons for not using their actual names. Most people around here don't. Maybe it would be more wise of of you to accept their judgement about their choice of appellation. As for me, why I am in actuality, a big fraidy cat.

Tell me, would you object if we used the pseudonym 'Publius'?


Wed, 10/09/2013 - 7:48pm

One more comment: those who engage in ad hominem attacks ought to be sufficiently courageous to attach their whole names to them, and not to hide behind online handles that disguise identities. This isn't a freestyle rap battle between Pusha T and Chief Keef. It should be civilized discourse between people not afraid to stand behind ideas. Looking at you Wolverine, Major Rod, and Carl.


Wed, 10/09/2013 - 5:37pm

In reply to by Interested Observer

Well said, sir.


Tue, 10/08/2013 - 8:42pm

In reply to by Interested Observer

Interested Observer:

Respectfully, I don't see how you could miss it.

This "It's discouraging to see calls for civility met with dismissive hostility." especially but your whole post is a wonderfully adroit bit of sophistry. You come down on one side while adopting a disinterested pose of someone who only wants us all to get along. Nice job.

Now, I'll ask you what I asked some other guy, how has our exchange advanced the discussion of military affairs and small wars?

Interested Observer

Tue, 10/08/2013 - 7:34pm

I think many of us agree with Lt. Col. Bracken.

Respectfully, I'm not sure how an inference can be drawn that this essay is an assault on one side or the other.

It's discouraging to see calls for civility met with dismissive hostility.


Wed, 10/09/2013 - 5:38pm

In reply to by major.rod

Major Rod, please identify with precision which part of my essay is partisan. You've no idea about my political leanings or affiliation, nor could you possibly glean it herein.


Mon, 10/07/2013 - 4:28pm

If FOX and MSNBC are diametrically opposed politically why does FOX have so much higher ratings across the board and I mean in every show?

BS flag on that point and the rest of the article which is a bunch of thinly veiled partisan whining.

Surprising to see the liberal spin/bias creeping into SWJ.


Mon, 10/07/2013 - 4:29pm

In reply to by gute

I wish I could "like" your post.

I agree with Carl this is a editorial, a pointless one at that, disguised as a national security piece. IMHO it doesn't belong in the Council. BLFJR needs to flush out his headgear.


Mon, 10/07/2013 - 4:22pm

In reply to by carl

Carl - Well said...


Fri, 10/04/2013 - 6:22pm

In reply to by BLFJR


Nice argument. I will counter with exactly what you stated except I will substitute the word(s) liberal/progressive for the word conservative. So there.

Now, how has that advanced the discussion and understanding of military matters and small wars?

For the record, since you and Mr. Bracknell manifest such great concern with what the world thinks of us in this matter, I don't give a rat's asset what the world thinks of us. This is our business. Let those who you think might disapprove turn down a green card if one was offered if they don't like it.

Speaking of visas, we should be ashamed that Afghan terps who have helped us, like the one who risked his life to help Dakota Meyer, are having such a hard time getting them.

Mr. Bracknell's statement is absolute correct! Only when real Congressional statesmen are civil in their discourse will anything productive ever be accomplished that is in the best interest of the American citizens. The Constitution lays out the groundwork for that, and the ultra conservatives have trashed that portion of the Constitution. The people demand them to do their job in accordance with the intent of the Constitution. They have the duty to safeguard America, the citizens, and the economy. The Federal government cannot run on bread and water while continuing to bleed billions of dollars just to satisfy a fanatically radical small group of conservatives that has shown disdain for the good of the public and is proving to the World that we don't have our house in order.


Wed, 10/09/2013 - 5:44pm

In reply to by Wolverine57

Sheltered? Disconnect? I'm struggling with how you might have reached that conclusion. How is it "sheltered" or "disconnect[ed]" with civil society to see strategic risk in how we are collectively portraying democracy as a choice for potential partner states, with whom we may eventually have to collaborate in wars large AND small? Seriously, Wolverine, tease this out a little more rather than just hurling insults -- what say you?


Fri, 10/04/2013 - 2:02pm

I am with Carl and was struggling with how to address an apparent sheltered Marine with this issue. And, we wonder why the Chairman is concerned with the disconnect between the all-volunteer force and the citizenry! There is a disconnect.

Interested Observer

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 11:57am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

"I never really trust any analyst or commenter. Not a good habit, but there it is"

I don't think it's a bad habit but maybe that is because I share it with you.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 11:01am

In reply to by carl


I am generally sympathetic to conservative arguments (prudence ought to be one), but in the loosey-goosey and not so loosey-goosey realm of soft power, using debt ceilings as a domestic policy leveraging point has its issues in terms of how we are viewed as a source of economic drive and stability.

In that sense, the argument the author makes belongs to the world of "small wars" with its focus on public understandings.

I wasn't going to comment because I didn't want to drag the partisan in. This is how I went down the tubes at the old Abu Muqawama blog. I'm still ashamed of my behavior toward the author Abu M, although I am such a suspicous person by nature that I never really trust any analyst or commenter. Not a good habit, but there it is. Some of the suspicion arises from the way the public was managed with regard to small wars, but that is a conversation for a different day.

The US has been viewed as one safe place to "park" money because of the economic turmoil out there. That world was always going to change because of the changing nature of the world economy but I worry that we are accelerating things in a way that could bite us in the rear.

Things aren't so good near me, economy-wise. We can't have another 2008. It will hurt.

But your points are well taken, the same system that people are complaining about slowed down intervention in Syria and even the British vote in parliament is sort of a proof of the principle of divided government.

Good and bad, both :)

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 10/10/2013 - 11:14am

In reply to by Butch_Bracknell

I agree with many of your points but I want to reassert this point that I made to Carl:

The general principle of divided government slowed down the drive to a Syrian intervention so I think outsiders should be careful when looking with pity at the US for such principles. There are a lot of ways to get into trouble as nations, most systems have their flaws. Both division and consensus can lead to trouble (look at the Iraq War votes). But, once again, I worry about the issues you bring up too. Good points.


Wed, 10/09/2013 - 7:04pm

In reply to by carl

And, finally, Carl: I generally try not to engage with the trolls who invariably come out and refuse to have civil discussions about important issues. I'll grant you that perhaps this essay belongs elsewhere, in that it's not purely "Small Wars-centric", but offer: (a) SWJ routinely publishes pieces that are all over the place with regard to security matters. To wit, counterterrorism ops of the type recently accomplished successfully in Libya and unsuccessfully against al-Shabbab, are not strictly within the purview of a narrow reading of "small wars" yet they merit discussion because they are important. (b) The editors thought it belonged here, and that's pretty much the only opinion that matters.

Now, I agree that the current budget crisis is part and parcel of democracy. The two (or more) sides have closely held beliefs and they have chosen this as their battleground. Great, fine, it's what we all signed up for when we were born under this constitutional form of government or were naturalized. I'm all for closely held positions. My point isn't at all about the domestic question -- frankly, I'm not even sure which side is right. My point is about the shadow we are casting worldwide with potential strategic partners, with populations, with business and security leaders, who once looked to America as an example, and who now look on us with pity. Right or wrong, they look on us this way because our political discourse has devolved into the same type of edgy, gotcha, narcisstic and arrogant advocacy that occurs in the comments section of this blog and virtually any other medium where ideas are discussed that provoke strong reactions.

But seriously, don't take my word for it. Let's look at how the world media is reporting on our waning influence, or the *perception* of our influence:…………

Finally, Carl, as a student of American history, I'm well acquainted with what passed for political discourse in the 19th century. Andrew Jackson was legendary for his orneriness with regard to his political enemies, duels and physical confrontations were not irregular occurrences, and one particular set of discords led to the Civil War. I'm not sure we should use the caning of Charles Sumner or the Burr-Hamilton duel as benchmarks of statesmanship in 2013.

In sum, I am not "miffed" at the process. I'm disappointed in the failure of leadership to broker sensible compromise, which damages our national image, one currency of our foreign policy.

Mr. Bracknell seems a bit miffed at the political process in a representative democracy. Things aren't quite tidy enough for his taste and he figures this is making us look bad in other peoples eyes. They may be tut-tuting in disapproval. If only we could all get along.

Sorry bub, it ain't gonna happen. What Mr. Bracknell views as superficial partisan bickering isn't. It is a conflict over fundamentals in the eyes of the two sides. This is big stuff in the history of the nation. The conflict is over the role and scope of the federal government in the lives of the Americans. Should it get bigger and become tyrannical in the one view; or should it stay small and allow injustice to prevail in the other. There is basic disagreement here and there isn't going to be a compromise any more than a compromise could be made on slavery. That is the reason the two sides are at an impasse. To yield on something this basic is to lose and lose big for generations. The people on either side really believe in their position, sincerely believe and that is why they are fighting so hard.

Single issue brinksmanship is a phrase Mr. Bracknell uses. The intent of that construction is to trivialize the issue. But when that issue is badly conceived, hopelessly complicated law that has the potential to intrude itself into every single aspect of an American's life, maybe the matter is rather more important than Mr. Bracknell thinks.

The main point of my criticism of the article is this: it refuses to recognize that some issue are viewed by sincere, serious minded people as be extremely important, of historical fundamental importance even. And as such they are worth a heroic struggle. I suspect Mr. Bracknell may know that but disguises what is basically a partisan polemic with fine sounding phrases longing for handfuls of real statesmen who can rise above partisan bickering. (Mr. Bracknell should check U.S. campaign rhetoric of the 18th and 19th centuries if he really wants to see tough talk.)

I took a hard tone in this response but this piece is a political editorial about internal US politics that Mr. Bracknell prettified with a superfice about national security. As such it should be in the Council. I don't think it belongs here.

Martin Doyle

Thu, 10/03/2013 - 5:45pm

Good for you LTC Bracknell. Outstanding!