National Security

Blue World Order

How the Democrats can maintain the rare national security edge they enjoyed in the 2012 election.

For Republicans, the recent U.S. presidential election was supposed to be 1980. They would paint President Barack Obama as Jimmy Carter -- weak on the economy and weak on national security. High unemployment and low growth? Check. National security? Democratic presidential candidates -- from Carter to John Kerry -- were often hobbled by public doubts about their fitness to protect the United States from foreign threats (see: "Dukakis, tank").

But not this year. For the first time in decades, Democrats had a presidential candidate with an advantage on these issues. Obama entered the 2012 election with a successful foreign-policy record: The U.S. war in Iraq was over, the war in Afghanistan was winding down, Osama bin Laden was dead, al Qaeda's top ranks were decimated, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled, and an international coalition had been assembled to impose the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran.

Americans have taken notice. As recently as 2003, Democrats trailed Republicans by 29 percentage points on which party voters trusted more on national security. But on Election Day this year, voters trusted Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, equally on national security -- and they trusted the president 11 points more on the broader category of international affairs. This represents a historic turnaround.

This reversal reflects not only the president's strong record, but also the incoherent positions of Romney and his Republican allies. Sometimes, they returned to the neoconservative recklessness of the George W. Bush era -- banging the war drums on Iran and calling for the indiscriminate arming of Syrian rebels. At other times, Romney and his surrogates sounded frozen in the Cold War, calling Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical foe and referring to the Czech Republic as Czechoslovakia. Romney and the Republicans also argued that debt was America's biggest challenge, even as they proposed spending trillions more on defense than even the Pentagon has requested.

Now the question is: Can Obama and his party retain that national security edge in the face of old doubts about the party and new global challenges?

The Democratic Party shouldn't rest easy on its national security laurels. Focus groups conducted by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner during this year's election show the public's trust in Obama on national security has not yet erased their doubts about his party. Swing voters, while saying they were "pleasantly surprised" by Obama's strength on handling global challenges, said they still saw the Democratic Party as a party that lacks skill in commanding the military, is too slow in recognizing foreign threats, and bends too much to public opinion rather than having a clear strategic vision.

If Obama and the Democratic Party are to maintain and strengthen their newfound standing on national security, they should heed three key lessons from Obama's national security record over the past four years:

First, they need to continue demonstrating that they understand the needs and perspectives of the military. Obama has done this well -- spending time with the troops; personally meeting the fallen when they arrive at Dover Air Force Base; showing unstinting support, along with the first lady, for military families; and above all, showing real regard for the advice of his military advisors.

Showing concern for the military does not mean giving it an unlimited budget. The public understands that as the United States ends the wars, it is time for a leaner, more modern military -- even if the Republican Party does not. It is instructive that in this year's Senate race in military-heavy Virginia, Republican George Allen focused his campaign against Democrat Tim Kaine on the case against Pentagon budget cuts -- and lost. Yet Democrats do need to show that they take the Pentagon's readiness concerns seriously and that they are committed to maintaining the most advanced military on the planet.

Second, Democrats shouldn't hesitate to use military force when absolutely necessary. They must support methods of projecting and deploying American power -- including drones and special operations forces -- that are both effective and economical. That means, for example, that if al Qaeda affiliates are popping up in places like Yemen or Sudan, Democrats should be prepared to take the fight to them where they are. And it means that in limited circumstances, like the revolution in Libya, the United States should be prepared to join its allies in using force to come to the aid of people fighting in support of U.S. strategic interests and shared values. Democrats should also emphasize diplomatic strategies that can achieve America's goals, like the Obama administration's current approach to Iran and its pivot to Asia.

Third, Democrats need to amplify their vision of America's role in the world. Obama has chartered a new course for the 21st century: He envisions an America unafraid but uneager to use force, an America committed to advancing democracy around the world but without Bush's blunt-force approach, and an America that recognizes that change can carry both great promise and great risk for the country and its interests. Democrats need to build on this vision by showing that they will not pull back from the world as America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end and will not defund international engagement at a time of tight resources -- that, instead, they will use the U.S. military, diplomacy, alliances, and moral suasion to make Americans safer and more prosperous.

One presidential term -- even a very successful one -- hasn't been enough to completely erase doubts about Democrats and their ability to lead on security. But two such terms might be, as long as Democrats approach security issues with seriousness and heed the lessons that voters are offering.

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National Security

We Were Pirates, Too

Why America was the China of the 19th century. 

The ship carrying Francis Cabot Lowell and his family home from England in the summer of 1812 was intercepted by a British war squadron, which held the passengers and crew for some days at the British base at Halifax, Canada. Lowell's baggage was subject to several intensive searches, for his captors had been warned that he may have stolen designs for power textile weaving machinery, a serious crime in England. Lowell, indeed, had done just that -- but, aware of the risk, had committed the designs to memory.

The British rarely accorded outsiders the privilege of touring their cotton plants. But Lowell was a leading Boston merchant who imported a great deal of British cloth and had solid relations with his British counterparts. One can imagine him on one of his tours, feigning languid disinterest even as he diligently filed away details on gearing and loom speeds. By the gentlemanly codes of the day, it seems dishonorable.

Today, it's China that is the rising power, and the United States that is the hegemon wary of the young upstart. To China, the United States appears much as Great Britain did to Americans two centuries ago. The U.S. Navy is an intrusive presence on its coasts, while U.S. support for Taiwan parallels British sympathies for southern separatists. Most threatening for Beijing is the appeal of America's raucous democracy for China's rising masses.

The Chinese today are as determined as 19th-century Americans were to achieve economic parity with their rival, and like early Americans, will steal all the technology they can. The important difference is that modern documentation standards make theft much more rewarding. Any drawings Lowell purloined would have been mostly dimensionless and only approximately accurate. (He was fortunate that Paul Moody, the genius mechanic who designed and built his plants, was also a skilled weaver.) In the mid 19th century, Americans were also desperate to replicate Britain's famed Sheffield steel, by common consent the world's finest. But the best Sheffield craftsmen the United States could buy failed to replicate it. (The key, which even the British had not guessed, was the local clay used in the heating vessels.)

Today, Chinese espionage is widely assumed to have targeted virtually all big American technology companies. A long list of firms, including Apple, Boeing, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Ford, Motorola, Northrup Grumman, and General Motors, have pursued successful criminal actions against Chinese moles and other agents.

Back in 1812, finished cotton textiles dominated British exports, accounting for about half of all trade revenues, the fruit of a half century of progress in mechanized mass production.  Proportionate to GDP, the industry was about three times the size of the entire U.S. automobile sector today. High-speed textile manufacture was a highly advanced technology for its era, and Great Britain was as sensitive about sharing it as the United States is with advanced software and microprocessor breakthroughs. The British parliament legislated severe sanctions for transferring trade secrets, even prohibiting the emigration of skilled textile workers or machinists.

But the Americans had no respect for British intellectual property protections. They had fought for independence to escape the mother country's suffocating economic restrictions. In their eyes, British technology barriers were a pseudo-colonial ploy to force the United States to serve as a ready source of raw materials and as a captive market for low-end manufactures. While the first U.S. patent act, in 1790, specified that "any person or persons" could file a patent, it was changed in 1793 to make clear that only U.S. citizens could claim U.S. patent protection.

China's modern trade and patent regimes are similarly tilted against outsiders. "Use" patents are freely awarded for Chinese versions of Western inventions. High-value chips are denied import licenses unless companies allow the "inspection" of their source code. Western partners willingly make Faustian bargains to contribute crown jewel technologies for the sake of immediate contracts. German companies that once supplied mag lev technology to their Chinese high-speed rail partners now find themselves shut out by newly born Chinese competitors. Last summer, GE made a similar deal involving its highly valuable, and militarily sensitive, avionics technology.

If anything, the early Americans were even more brazen about their ambitions. Entrepreneurs advertised openly for skilled British operatives who were willing to risk arrest and imprisonment for sneaking machine designs out of the country. Tench Coxe, Alexander Hamilton's deputy at Treasury, created a system of bounties to entice sellers of trade secrets, and sent an agent to steal machine drawings, but he was arrested. While skilled operatives were happy to take U.S. bounties, few of them actually knew how to build the machines or how to run a cotton plant.

The breakthrough came in the person of Samuel Slater. As a young farm boy, he served as an indentured apprentice to Jedidiah Strutt, one of the early developers of industrial-scale powered cotton spinning. As Strutt came to appreciate Slater's great talents, he employed him as an assistant in constructing and starting up new plants. (In his signed indenture, Slater promised to "faithfully ... serve [Strutt's] Secrets.")

Worried about his future in England, Slater made the jump to the United States when he was 21, bringing an unusually deep background in mechanized spinning. Emigrating under an assumed name, he answered an ad from Moses Brown, a leading Providence merchant, who had been badly stung by ersatz British spinning machinery. Brown was sufficiently impressed by Slater to finance a factory partnership, and over the next 15 years, Slater, Brown, their partners, and the many people they trained created a powered thread-making empire that stretched throughout New England and down into the Middle Atlantic states. Former president Andrew Jackson called Slater "The Father of the American Industrial Revolution," the Brits called him "Slater the Traitor."

The development implications were profound, for Slater and Lowell together jump-started American mass-production manufacturing, the essential ingredient in its startling 19th-century growth. The United States' present-day high technology could have much the same implications for China. There is no point appealing to Chinese ethics -- in the great game of nations, ethics don't enter into the conversation. Had Americans invented a magic telescope into British factories, they surely would have used it. A more appropriate response is to apply what some have called "innovation mercantilism": If Lowell had been reincarnated as an American consultant today, he could have told the multinationals to keep all Chinese out of their factories, no matter how friendly they seemed.

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