Two recent news items speak volumes about the Democratic Party’s priorities on national security. First, Democratic majorities in the House and Senate – including all the presidential aspirants – voted against the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which authorized military tribunals to try terrorist suspects and established guidelines for their aggressive interrogation. Then 177 House Democrats voted to thwart the passage of the Electronic Surveillance Modernization Act, which expanded electronic surveillance of terrorists on foreign soil.
Civil liberties dogmatists like the ACLU applauded these obstructionist efforts, but they came to naught. Both pieces of legislation ended up passing – though the latter act awaits approval by the Senate – and the only political defeat was borne by the Democratic Party, which was left looking, not for the first time, like a calculating horde of anti-Bush partisans more concerned with frustrating the War on Terror for political gain than fighting it.
To suggest that many on the Democratic side are less than supportive of a tough-minded counterterrorism strategy is to arouse howls of self-righteous outrage. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was savaged by Democrats and their media sympathizers last month for making the commonsensical and seemingly innocuous suggestion that terrorists, like the Nazis before them, can never be appeased.
Equally repugnant to Rumsfeld’s critics was his observation that a “‘blame America first’ mentality” imperiled the country’s ability vigorously to wage the war effort. Forget that Rumsfeld was making only general remarks, and that he never once singled out the administration’s Democratic opponents. For Senators Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid, among others in the Democratic camp, the speech hit too close to home: Nothing less that Rumsfeld’s immediate resignation would sate their ire.
But surely the Democrats do protest too much. Rumsfeld may be too politic to say so, but the fact is that the current Democratic Party has forfeited the tough-on-defense legacy of such Democratic standard-bearers as presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. It scarcely overstates the case to say that the Democratic establishment’s most notable contributions to the war against Islamic jihadism have come at its expense. Supporting this contention are the Democrats’ repeated attempts to quash critical counterterrorism legislation.
Consider the vacillating fortunes of the Patriot Act. Initially passed with overwhelming bipartisan backing – the 2001 Senate vote on the Patriot Act was 98 to 1 for its approval – it has since become a Democratic political metonymy for the putative extralegal excesses of the Bush administration.
Wisconsin Senator Russell Feingold has climbed his way to the top of the list of likely Democratic contenders for the presidency on the strength of his largely demagogic attacks on the Patriot Act, which Feingold claims restricts the freedoms of Americans “while doing little protect our country against terrorists.”
Howard Dean has judged it “morally wrong.” Al Gore, more hysterically, has denounced it as a Bush administration “political tool to consolidate its power and to escape any accountability for its use.” The smear campaign against the Patriot Act culminated last January, when Congressional Democrats, citing alleged curtailments of individual rights, voted to block its full reauthorization. “We killed the Patriot Act!” Minority Leader Harry Reid exulted.
There was little foundation for this organized hysteria. Alarmist allegations by the ACLU quite apart, there have been no unreasonable infringements of individual liberties under the act, something even liberal Democrats concede: “I have never had a single abuse of the Patriot Act reported to me,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said.
Beyond doubt, however, is that the Patriot Act has successfully streamlined American counterterrorism policies for the age of Al Qaeda. In the most important innovation, the act razed the so-called “wall,” erected during the Clinton administration, which precluded cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As a direct consequence, terrorist operatives who had long eluded the law – among them Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Sami Al-Arian and various fundraisers for Hamas- have at last been brought to justice. Provisions in the Patriot Act have made this a particularly unwelcome prospect: Terrorists now face stiffer penalties than at any time in the recent past. Little wonder that longitudinal polls reveal that a clear majority of Americans favors the act.
Democrats have not gotten the message. If anything, they have stepped up their assaults on more assertive counterterrorism measures. The same month they mounted their offensive against the Patriot Act’s extension, prominent Democrats declared against the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of terrorist suspects, details of which had been disclosed by The New York Times in December.