This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 12 September 2011.
A man sitting in a cave in a remote corner of the world easily predicted the general thrust of the conservative-led response to a major terror attack on America. Once one knows the general thrust, it becomes easy to develop a plan to respond to the response. Muhammad Ali called it "the rope-a-dope": just when they think they have you where they want you, you have them where you want them.
Our enemy has been engaging us for ten years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, with thousands of our soldiers and Afghan and Iraqi civilians dead, and billions of dollars spent. Their most important goal has been to bring terrorism into the lives of average citizens at home in order to affect the political process by creating internal turmoil. Mission accomplished. Since 9/11, conservatives have laboured to build the image that Republicans are strong on security and, conversely, that Democrats are weak.
But the facts show that conservatives have been ineffective and inconsistent on national security policy – and now, their myth is crumbling.
During the Bush years, neoconservatives labelled detractors of the wars as unpatriotic and weak, and accused them of forgetting 9/11. A Republican refrain was "fight them over there, not here." The enemy would rather have it that way, too, because it is much easier to fight us on their home turf, in places such as Tora Bora or Sadr City, than for al-Qaida to continually plan terror attacks that take years to put in place and are often discovered at their genesis.
Because of the difficulty in tracking and identifying our foes, much of our effort to engage the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan has consisted of pushing our troops into enemy territory and baiting them into attacking. It has taken us this long to understand that this fight involves much more than just "taking the fight to the enemy"; it means building local institutions, government, infrastructure, economies, trust and public support. It has just as much to do with international development as it does with military action.
Conservative thinking regarding the Middle East and the Arab Spring has been a model of inconsistency. Some called the events a "Muslim Brotherhood nightmare" or blamed the Obama administration's approach for not holding it together (despite homegrown movements and previous decades of inconsistent US policy). Some have called for swifter decisive action, with others against taking any action, even calling it "unconstitutional". Conservative positions on Afghanistan range from supporting withdrawal, to "staying the course"; and on Pakistan, they vary from continued support for the government, to taking diplomatic or even military action against it.
Over the last three years, the US has caught or killed more al-Qaida members and launched more targeted drone attacks against terrorists than in the previous eight years. Muammar Gaddafi has been in America's sights since Ronald Reagan was president and Osama bin Laden was the most wanted man in the world since 9/11. Both were taken down under a Democratic administration – without spending a trillion dollars, sending in thousands of ground troops, or taking a decade to accomplish the task. And these outcomes were achieved with international support and legitimacy.
As campaigning for 2012 ramps up, Republican candidates are divided, with some having been accused of turning into isolationists after supporting withdrawal from Afghanistan and arguing against the successful intervention in Libya. They still claim to be national security champions, despite many championing defence cuts before accepting even small targeted tax increases. Conservatives were willing to support "regime change", boots on the ground in massive numbers in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and their associated costs, with much less legitimacy and international support. Yet they opposed the intervention in Libya despite support from the UN, Nato and the Arab League – and without the need and cost of ground troops. It would seem that the conservative view of when and how military force should be applied is based simply on who occupies the White House.
The proof is in the facts. Ineffective and inconsistent policies, and choosing politics over security, have led to the crumbling of the myth of conservative strength on defence and national security – a myth Republicans had worked so hard to build.