Two Parties, One Policy: Washington's New Consensus on Terrorism

By Wittes, Benjamin; Singh, Ritika | Commonweal, September 14, 2012 | Go to article overview

Two Parties, One Policy: Washington's New Consensus on Terrorism


Wittes, Benjamin, Singh, Ritika, Commonweal


Political parties in the United States, like a spatting couple in a bad marriage, have been fighting over the law of counterterrorism for more than a decade. And like the spatting couple, they have developed an almost rote script for their fight. The script has a logic of its own. It is a comfortable one for both spouses--and the fight is soothing in its own way. Republicans and Democrats alike wrap up some portion of their party's identity and self-image in the conflict over national-security policy. The fight gives each side the impression--and the confidence--that the other endangers America. And it gives each side something to tell voters about why they should vote one way rather than another.

You already know the script: Democrats see themselves as the rule-of-law party, concerned to restore America's moral standing in the eyes of the world and to curtail the excesses of the Bush administration. In their rhetorical world, they defend human rights and compliance with international law from the dangerous unilateralists of the right. While the other side is full of cowboys, Democrats work through multilateral institutions. They believe in federal courts. They don't shred the Constitution.

Conversely, Republicans see themselves as the party of security, committed to the law-of-war paradigm and to muscular uses of American power in pursuit of it. In their rhetorical world, trying terrorists in federal courts--even showing basic solicitude for detainees--makes America less safe and reveals a weak-kneed willingness to return to a pre-9/11 law-enforcement mentality. They believe in interrogating the enemy. They don't do habeas corpus.

The script, at this point, is largely nonsense, masking a remarkable common ground between the parties on the legal and policy issues surrounding terrorism. Like the couple that bickers over trivial matters while sharing attitudes on nearly all the important issues facing their family, the two major political parties have converged on the substance of many of the key questions while continuing to speak in the public domain as though a great gulf separates them.

This is not to say there are no differences between the parties on these issues. There are. But the differences have become subtle--even as the rhetoric has not. Issues that deeply divided the country as recently as four years ago have become matters of consensus, if not in the country at large, certainly in those parts of both political parties that will control the federal government under either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

This convergence creates anxieties on both left and right--on one side because it involves the institutionalization and legitimization of tactics like drone strikes and noncriminal detention that many people are uncomfortable with, and on the other side because it involves tempering the use of these tactics and the imposition of judicial review over wartime conduct. Both sets of anxieties have merit, but the convergence is nonetheless a great thing--it is a reflection of how much more sophisticated the American political system is in operation than in rhetoric. What's more, whether we like the convergence or not, it is likely to continue whether President Obama gets re-elected or Mitt Romney takes his place.

Consider how the candidates would actually handle the major disputes over which the parties have fought:

Neither President Oama nor Mitt Romney will close Guantanamo Bay. Obama continues to insist that his policy involves closing the detention facility at the naval base. Yet Guantanamo is going nowhere--and Obama knows it. He has not convinced Congress to let him use another facility to hold detainees, and he has identified a group of Guantanamo detainees whom he means to continue detaining somewhere. Furthermore, as the withdrawal from Afghanistan accelerates and the Bagram Air Base is no longer available to hold enemy belligerents, the need for some detention facility may become more acute. …

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