The Politics of Toughness

The Politics of Toughness

By Kenneth Cone - July 3, 2009

The toughness issue has returned. First Dick Cheney engineered an unlikely comeback by arguing that Obama isn't tough enough to protect us from terrorists. Now Republican pundits charge that Obama lacks a backbone in dealing with Iran. This "toughness" issue has been the Achilles heel of the Democrat left in the United States for decades. We need to understand what's going on here.

First of all, we're not talking about the kind of toughness that makes you willing to risk your own life for a cause. John Kerry lost a political toughness competition with George W. Bush, despite the fact that Kerry served in Vietnam, while Bush (and Cheney) avoided active military service. Rather, we're talking about the toughness of moral certainty that makes you willing to risk other people's lives for a cause.

That can be a dangerous quality, but it's a quality that national leaders sometimes need, particularly in wartime.

Democrats used to be tough. FDR led us through the bloodiest war in human history, during which he firebombed Tokyo and Dresden. Harry Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, confronted the Soviets in Berlin and launched the US into the long and bloody Korean War. John Kennedy invaded Cuba, took the world to the brink of nuclear war in the ensuing missile crisis, permitted the assassination of Diem and committed US forces to Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson put 600,000 American troops in Vietnam.

A casual glance at this list proves that sometimes "tough" works and sometimes it doesn't. Tough isn't the same as smart. But you can't deny that Democrats used to be tough.

Vietnam changed that. Americans from both parties initially viewed the war as a fight against Communism, despite the fact that many -- perhaps most -- Vietnamese saw it as a fight against colonialism. Whereas the right eventually concluded that the US had made a mistake, many people on the left came to suspect that the US had, in fact, acted out of cynical colonial motives. And so the Democrats lost their moral certainty about foreign policy. Post Vietnam it's hard to imagine any Democrat saying, as Kennedy had:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Some people might think that a bit of self doubt is a good thing in foreign policy, but the American electorate disagrees. After suffering their toughness castration in 1968, the Democrats elected only one president for the remaining 22 years of the Cold War. That one exception was Jimmy Carter, who came to power because of Watergate and lost after one term, largely because he appeared weak against the USSR and Iran.

Democrats became competitive again after the Cold War ended, but then 9/11 plunged us back into conflict and re-established the Republican wartime toughness franchise. This advantage might have lasted another 20 years had the Republicans not foolishly overplayed their hand by invading Iraq. But Dick Cheney's reemergence shows that toughness still resonates. If Cheney can get traction with this issue, imagine what a fresh and attractive candidate could do with it.

So what lessons should we draw from this history? And is Obama the new Jimmy Carter?


First, toughness matters in American politics, for better or worse. Especially in wartime.

Second, a lack of toughness can encourage aggression. For example, Bill Clinton's decision to pull out of Somalia after the US lost 18 soldiers in the "Blackhawk down" incident encouraged bin Laden to believe that he could defeat and humiliate the US. We know this because bin Laden said as much in his May, 1998 interview with ABC reporter John Miller.

(I'm not suggesting that bin Laden would have let us alone, had Bill Clinton continued his hunt for Mohamed Farrah Adid in Somalia. But his perception of American weakness definitely shaped his strategy.)

And, of course, there is always the specter of Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich.

Third, toughness absent a well-developed sense of morality is a bad thing. Hitler and Stalin were tough. (However, war creates difficult moral dilemmas - reasonable people can disagree about the morality of Hiroshima. And waterboarding.)

Fourth, toughness absent cool strategic judgment gets you screwed. Johnson plunged ahead in Vietnam because he did not want to look weak. The neocons under Cheney and Bush were plenty tough, but they maneuvered us into Iraq, a war which weakened us, inflamed the Muslim world, and strengthened the Iranians by removing Iran's principle enemy. As they left office, Cheney and his team seemed intent on maneuvering us into a confrontation with Russia over admitting Georgia to NATO. We couldn't win that confrontation, since Americans aren't willing to fight a land war if Russia invades Georgia again.

Being tough but stupid is a bit like being a bull.

In a bullfight.

Fifth, once you're in a war, winning requires more than toughness. Sometimes you have to help other people fight their own wars, as we did twice in Afghanistan but failed to do in Vietnam and initially in Iraq. Sometimes you have make alliances with unsavory people, as we did with Stalin in World War II, and as General Petraeus shrewdly did with the Sunni insurgents in Iraq. And sometimes you have to win the war of ideas.

Sixth, talking tough doesn't make you tough, especially when you can't deliver on your threats. Teddy Roosevelt, the patron saint of tough guys, famously said "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

So Where Do Our Political Parties Stack Up On The Toughness Issue?

Nobody can doubt Republican toughness. "Soft" Republicans, like George Bush senior and Colin Powell have been purged, and hardliners like Cheney and the Weekly Standard crowd dominate the party. (Notice that the softies tend to have actual military experience, while typically the hardliners do not.) Some of the hardliners, for example John Bolton, seem to be agitating for another pre-emptive war, this time with Iran. You can't doubt their toughness, but you might question their cool strategic judgment.

On the Democrat side, the Senate crowd doesn't inspire much confidence. These are the folks who voted for invading Iraq and then decided later that they wouldn't have done it, had they read their briefing material first. Sort of the worst of all worlds.

What About Obama?

Obama is much harder to call. His cool, even-handed demeanor is refreshing, but seems contrary to the whole idea of moral certainty. His famous 2002 statement in opposition to the Iraq invasion -- "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars." -- demonstrated real judgment, as well as a fair bit of political courage, but left open the toughness question.

However, Obama's decision to send another 17,000 soldiers to Afghanistan weighs in on the side of toughness. He has now committed his prestige to a war which is at the same time more important and more difficult than Iraq. Lots of people will die as a result of that decision, so it couldn't have been easy.

Obama has also continued and even expanded drone attacks in Pakistan and bombing in Afghanistan, over the protests of both governments and despite the inevitable deaths of innocent civilians. The strikes hurt al Qaeda and the Taliban, and in the difficult calculus of war, Obama has decided that the benefits outweigh the costs.

And remember those Somali pirates...

So what about Obama's decision to close Guantanamo, and his cautious rhetoric about the Iranian election? I think both represent strategic judgments rather than weakness.


Obama presented Guantanamo and waterboarding as moral issues, but they also have strategic significance. Our war with al Qaeda has always primarily been about ideas. Bin Laden and his aging veterans, hiding in caves in Pakistan, aren't the real danger. The real danger is that bin Laden's ideas will spread to the world's other 1.2 billion Muslims.

Therefore we must out-compete bin Laden in the propaganda war.

George W. Bush realized the importance of ideas, which is why he tried to promote democracy as an alternative to jihadism and why he took pains to say that we were not at war with Islam. At one point he even hired a Madison Avenue advertising executive in a rather pathetic attempt to improve our image in the Muslim world. Unfortunately he also invaded Iraq, and then allowed Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and "enhanced interrogation techniques" to become juicy targets in the propaganda war.

Obama's decisions to end waterboarding and close Guantanamo, as well as his speech in Cairo and his general outreach to the Muslim world therefore make perfect sense in a strategic context. Whatever you think of these decisions, they reflect a clear strategic vision about how to win this war. This isn't weakness.

And it's pretty obvious which president makes a better salesman for American ideals in the Muslim world. Bush's aura of moral righteousness hurt us in the war of ideas, because people from other cultures and religions don't like preachy Americans and are quick to see us as hypocrites.

In contrast you don't have to like Obama to realize that he is a walking advertisement for the power of democracy and the uniqueness of America. He also communicates respect and a willingness to listen which non-Americans find very attractive, while at the same time acting behind the scenes with considerable moral certainty. Speak softly and carry a big stick.

What About Iran?

Obama would obviously have loved to see democracy triumph in Iran, just as he would have loved to deal with almost anybody other than Ahmadinejad. Furthermore Obama has paid a political cost by not taking a more forceful stance. After all, the Iranian democracy movement may be the only political issue on which all Americans can agree. So why did he tread so carefully, and why did he say that he didn't see much difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad?

This really can't be cowardice. Nothing bad would happen to Obama personally if he spoke out. It's a strategic calculation.

The guys with guns - the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian army - will ultimately determine Iran's future, either by supporting Ahmadinejad and his ally Khamenei, or by supporting Mousavi and his ally Rafsanjani. Obama evidently concluded that earnest and open support from the president of the Great Satan will not help Mousavi's case with the Revolutionary Guard. He may have a point about that.

Ahmadinejad has been working overtime to link the democracy movement with Obama and the CIA, because he obviously feels that such a linkage would strengthen his own internal position. Why should we help Ahmadinejad do this?

Obama doesn't need to convince the protestors and he can't convince the Revolutionary Guard. He could encourage the protestors to riot, but he can't support them if the Guard shoots them down. Airstrikes would not help, and we are not going to invade Iran. Talk is cheap.

So we have the unusual spectacle of an American politician passing up the opportunity to grandstand, and hurting himself politically, because he thinks it's the right strategic move. Again Obama may be right or wrong, but this isn't weakness or indecision.

The Next Crisis

Obama hasn't yet faced a major challenge of the Cuban missile variety, so we don't know how he would react in a world threatening crisis. But he's showing an encouraging pattern of good judgment and clear strategy, leavened by toughness.

Bill Clinton exhibited weakness when he reversed his course in Somalia after losing 18 soldiers. George W. Bush demonstrated bad judgment when he bogged us down in Iraq. It's too early to make a final judgment about Obama, but so far he has done nothing pointlessly weak and nothing pointlessly stupid.

Kenneth Cone has a Ph.D in economics from Stanford University and was an Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago between 1983 and 1985, before leaving academics to spend 19 years in business and consulting.  He has been a Senior Vice President at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a Senior Vice President at Lexecon.  He is now retired.

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