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Is Spending Creating a Consensus on Defense?

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
While candidate Barack Obama promised to hunt down Osama bin Laden, he also committed to closing the detention facility at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But now, many anti-war Democrats are disappointed that the facility remains open.

Many Democrats, genetically inclined to see defense spending as wasteful and preferring to spend on domestic programs, turned against the U.S. intervention in Iraq and what they regarded as President George W. Bush’s deceptions. The party’s evolving view on foreign policy was made all the more significant by the defeat of many moderate Democrats in the 2010 elections

While candidate Barack Obama promised to hunt down Osama bin Laden, he also committed to closing the detention facility at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and getting the U.S. out of Iraq. For many anti-war Democrats, he was the answer to their prayers.

Now, many of those same Democrats are disappointed that the Guantánamo facility remains open and that the war in Afghanistan has dragged. In May, Princeton University’s Cornel West, a longtime supporter of Obama, called the president a “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.”

For their part, Republicans appear more conflicted on foreign policy than they have been in more than a century.

While the end of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism left Republicans without their longtime ideological adversary, they quickly found a new one — Islamic extremism — which they argue threatens Western values and U.S. interests and allies.

Still, the GOP’s recent focus on restraining spending and balancing the budget has meant a greater willingness to cut defense spending, and the long, costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have left some conservatives wondering about nation building and whether foreign commitments carry an unacceptable cost.

The one area where both parties agree is Israel, though cracks are showing even there.

Both parties continue to be committed to protecting Israel, at least at the Congressional level. But unlike the 1950s and 1960s, Republicans now seem more completely supportive of Israel’s agenda, from the highest levels of elective office down to the party’s grass roots. That’s no longer quite the case with the Democratic Party, where substantial criticism of Israeli governments and policy is easier to find.

For the moment, both parties — and certainly the American people — have put the country’s economic health, and particularly jobs and spending, on the front political burner, and that certainly affects defense spending.

And yet national security questions always seem to pop up, especially during presidential elections. While both parties are talking about defense cuts, it’s clear that Democrats and Republicans have different views that still reflect the different values, assumptions and styles that were apparent during the 1960s.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s approach, for example, is likely to be very different from Obama’s on foreign policy, reflecting the GOP’s greater reliance on unilateralism and the Democrats’ greater nervousness about flexing America’s military muscles. And Republicans are extremely unhappy about substantial cuts to the defense budget, even with their concern for cutting overall spending.

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