Top 10 Mistakes Candidates Make on National Security

By / 6.29.2012

Editor’s note: This item is cross-posted from Truman’s Doctrine Blog.

With the Fourth of July coming up there are a lot of politicians talking about national security. These are the top ten mistakes they make. Next week we will have the top ten ways to win on national security.

10. Holocaust comparison.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re Glenn Beck or a human rights advocate. As soon as you’ve made the Holocaust / Hitler / Nazi comparison, your audience has stopped listening.

9. [Insert Socialist country] does it better than us.

An Irish defense expert once told me that no one likes the liberals in Ireland because they compare everything to Sweden. I asked him whose policies the conservatives admire. He replied, “hmmm… I guess England, which I suppose makes everyone mad too.” America’s role in the world has nothing to do with the strategic defense posture of a small nation like Costa Rica or a socialist, homogenous Scandinavian nation.

8. On a related note, using size comparisons to advocate for a smaller military.

Every budget analyst and policy expert knows that we spend more on our military than XYZ nations combined and have more carrier battle groups than everyone else times a million. Doesn’t matter. Our military needs to be the right size to accomplish our strategic objectives. We should make cuts when we no longer need a program (bye bye Cold War programs). Not because we’re bigger than France.

7. David Betray Us.

‘Nuff said. Figures like Petreaus and Colin Powell are un-bashable. Don’t question the patriotism of a leader who has to make a tough decision – conservative or progressive.

6. The random national security talking point.

Don’t speak from a frame of human rights, balanced budget, or other priorities, and then throw in a random “and its good for national security too!” fact at the end of your statement. It makes a candidate seem like s/he’ll say anything to get elected. If your priority is keeping the country safe, then say so upfront and lead that way.

5.  The “It’s classified!” excuse.

Guess what random State Senate candidate from Nebraska? You’re not going to see classified information so don’t use that excuse. People want to understand how you’d govern and what you stand for. So feel free to stand for something without needing top secret briefings after the town council meeting. (P.S. If you’d like to know what to stand for, we have 500 Truman Fellows waiting to help.)

4. Forgetting that values come first.

Americans are busy! We’re trying to make a living, raise families, and maybe even catch Monday night football. So don’t assume that people know everything you’re talking about in Afghanistan. A candidate’s worldview and values help the public understand and predict future actions – so while facts matter, remember to couple the two.

3. Misuse of military terminology / misunderstanding military culture

Don’t call a Marine a Soldier. S/he is a Marine. I love you very much Senator Boxer, but your “Don’t call me ma’am, call me Senator,” moment set back a lot of work progressives have been doing to help veterans by sowing seeds of mistrust. If you want to avoid mistakes, download our Military 101 basics here.

2. Not recognizing that civilians make the policy and military executes it.

Elected officials decide whether or not the military discriminates against gays, breaks Iraq and has to fix it, or detains prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. So please don’t blame military personnel if you disagree with civilian-generated policy – 99% of the time they’re dutifully executing orders.

1.  Guns vs. Butter arguments.

Technically, you’re correct that just one bomb could pay for a lot of school books. Before you resort to this emotional equivalent of saying “I don’t care about national security,” just keep in mind three key facts:

1. The American public has always and will always be willing to do whatever it takes to keep us safe. (Especially the Scotch-Irish heritage concentrations in swing states like NC, VA, PA and FL who’ve enjoyed 200 years of deciding elections)

2. It’s both-and not one-or. We can have effective, efficient national security and fund strong social welfare programs, scientific research, and student loans. And that is one reason why America is awesome.

3. See Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Security comes before art class. Humans are just hard wired that way.

Michael Moschella is Truman’s Political Director.

Cross-posted from Truman National Security Project.

Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff