Actually, Democrats and the military can get along. Here's how.
By Wesley K. Clark
The last time the United States elected a Democrat as its president to govern with a majority-Democratic Congress, an immediate fracas arose over gays in the military, reinforcing a partisan story line that Democrats can't be trusted with the nation's security. Sixteen years later, some will certainly be watching how deftly President-elect Barack Obama salutes, or how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid say the Pledge of Allegiance.
These are symbols, of course, but the national security challenges the nation faces now are anything but symbolic: two wars, an ongoing terrorist menace, a growing list of unmet military needs and a long roster of other threats arising from new quarters. So it's natural to ask: What do the Democrats need to understand about the military? And what does the military need to understand about the Democrats? As someone who has labored in both camps, I offer some thoughts.
Let's start by facing the truth: Democrats have long had an ambivalent relationship with the military, and vice versa. While Democrats profess to like and support the military, Republicans usually win more military and veterans' votes than Democrats, and no wonder: Democrats have been pilloried for supposedly wanting to cut defense spending, for being soft on America's enemies and for wanting to use the armed forces for “social engineering” — code for letting openly gay soldiers serve. As one senior Army leader told me a few years ago, “The Democrats may be all in favor of using force in a crisis, but can you trust them to stick with us when the going gets tough?” Exit polls last month showed that voters who've served in the military went for the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, over Obama by 54 percent to 44 percent.
And the mistrust runs both ways. To some Democrats, the armed forces appear, in the words of one New Hampshire activist who chided me in 2003, to be an “authoritarian, hierarchical, male-dominated” institution that's out of touch with liberal values. A small number of Democrats can usually be counted on to oppose any use of force and occasionally go after the institution that makes the use of force possible. (I sometimes hear concerns on college campuses that the make-up of our all-volunteer force is not “representative” of America, but I don't see the students rushing to volunteer themselves to redress the balance.)
So it's easy to assume that the military and the Democrats don't and won't get along. It's also wrong. As the 2000 election approached, a member of the Joint Chiefs confided to me: “You know, people wouldn't believe it, but probably no one else will ever treat us as well as the Clinton administration has.” From a shaky beginning, including the confidence-battering 1993 “Black Hawk Down” shootout in Somalia, the top civilians on Clinton's team and the president himself took pains to build respect and trust with the military's top brass — above all by engaging in forthright dialogue.
Building on that, Obama is off to a promising start with the Pentagon, steering clear of a reprise of the fight over “don't ask, don't tell” and picking pragmatic, non-ideological leaders whom top military officers will find highly reassuring — especially since so many may have discovered from personal experience that a particular partisan label is no guarantee of good leadership. Retaining Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, designating Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (with her six years of experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee) as secretary of state and appointing James L. Jones (a retired four-star Marine general) as national security adviser should go a long way toward assuring members of the armed forces that their concerns will be given a fair hearing at the very highest levels.
But the incoming team and the Democrat-dominated Congress still need to work hard to understand the lower ranks and the culture of today's military. Perhaps as many as 75 million Americans have either served in uniform or have family members who have done so. At any given time, the armed forces total some 2 million Americans on active duty, in the National Guard or in the reserves — all volunteers. Most read military-focused newspapers, such as the Army Times, and many live on bases, relatively isolated from nearby communities. The majority are married, and almost half have children, creating a subculture of families that endure frequent moves and frightening absences. Most Americans just can't fathom the stress and pain this lifestyle imposes (although Michelle Obama can — as the future first lady showed by reaching out to military family members during the campaign).
Our military is a values-based institution. Don't think of it as Republican or Democratic. Sure, occasionally someone will pop up, like the radio talk-show host I met while traveling in Arizona, who assured me that he had become a dues-paying Republican while serving as a Marine officer and thought that everyone else should, too. But most of us are uncomfortable with partisanship. True, many in the military, especially those who have served longer, lean toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. (What would you expect? The military must obey the orders of the commander in chief and follow the chain of command, which means giving up one's own liberties and spending time in difficult and often very dangerous circumstances.) But the real military values aren't partisan values; they're service, loyalty, honesty, patriotism, respect, achievement and personal responsibility.
Which brings us to one more core military value, one that Democrats can easily embrace: fairness. Military leaders take care of their troops — and their unit's families. They don't take advantage of their authority. Captains eat after their troops do, not before. Good officers get to work earlier than their subordinates and leave later. I used to joke on the campaign trail that the Army was a socialist organization: The government owned the housing and all the equipment I worked with, everyone's children went to the same schools and used the same hospitals, and the highest-ranking person (after more than 30 years in uniform) earned only about 10 or 12 times the salary of a raw recruit. In the military, we don't like favoritism, show-boating or elitism.
That's a good base upon which to build. But Democrats must also realize that the military's respect has to be earned. We don't consider ourselves an “interest group.” Sure, we will always appreciate more pay, better housing and stronger veterans' benefits. But that isn't how the Democrats will win over the military. They'll win by being straight-up, clear-eyed and professional about national security. And if they are, the military will trust them, even with a painful withdrawal from Iraq and the inevitable defense cutbacks.
Above all, don't think that we are anxious to “use our toys.” Forget about the Hollywood dramatics: Soldiers are the last to seek war. We know its personal and professional consequences painfully well. Those in uniform would prefer that President Obama use every other tool and method — diplomacy, sanctions, calling in the allies — before sending troops into combat. You're better off leaving political and economic development to others, too. As for crisis response? Please, let the diplomats work their magic first.
But the military will have to show some understanding as well. We don't have a monopoly on knowing what the nation's best interests are. National security now involves such spheres as law enforcement, the economy, the nation's industrial and scientific base and even such matters as health care and civil liberties. The military is just one voice among many.
Nor are our military plans and proposals beyond questioning. There's a lot of judgment involved in strategy and operations, and not a lot of certainty. The military is a cautious institution, and plans and options sometimes reflect just the opinion of the most senior person in the room. Even hard military “requirements” should stand up to public scrutiny. So when new members of Congress, Hill staffers and political appointees question tactics, techniques, troop levels and programs, we have to continue to treat these questions seriously and answer them with respect and diligence.
Recognize, too, that the Democrats have generally been pulling for the human side of the military. Worried about veterans' benefits, on-base child care facilities, health care and troop retention? Since at least the early 1990s, Democrats have been putting the “juice” into the all-important people programs that have made the armed forces such a successful institution today.
Finally, let's put aside the partisan legacy of Vietnam once and for all. We all grieve for the losses there and for the needy, homeless vets today. But almost no one now in uniform served in that conflict, and most of the Democrats who will be moving into offices at the National Security Council, the Pentagon and in Congress are too young to have been part of the bitter national debates over the war. Iraq just isn't Vietnam, and the debates over a U.S. withdrawal need not tear the country apart — especially if we in the military recognize that the Democratic Party that I have been associated with is every bit as patriotic and service-oriented as any other group in the United States.
We have a president-elect who has set out a pragmatic, nonpartisan, visionary course. It's time to lay to rest the old stereotypes about feckless, pacifist Democrats and authoritarian, war-mongering soldiers. If there were ever a time to get the relationship between Democrats and the military right, this is it.
Wesley K. Clark, a retired four-star general, commanded the 1999 war in Kosovo as NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe. He is a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations.