Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

How to be and not to be a responsible opposition

The flap over Michael Steele’s comments on Afghanistan has got me thinking about the challenge of being a responsible opposition in wartime. How can we hold the administration accountable and fairly evaluate administration policies yet do so in a way that does not worsen U.S. prospects in the war? Debates about foreign policy will not ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The flap over Michael Steele's comments on Afghanistan has got me thinking about the challenge of being a responsible opposition in wartime. How can we hold the administration accountable and fairly evaluate administration policies yet do so in a way that does not worsen U.S. prospects in the war?

Debates about foreign policy will not and should not be suspended just because the country is at war. Nor will the broader partisan political process go on hiatus. The question is not whether there will be debate and disagreement. The question is whether or not it will be done responsibly.

I would offer a few easy-to-declare-but-hard-to-live-up-to standards for evaluating the responsibility of the opposition:

The flap over Michael Steele’s comments on Afghanistan has got me thinking about the challenge of being a responsible opposition in wartime. How can we hold the administration accountable and fairly evaluate administration policies yet do so in a way that does not worsen U.S. prospects in the war?

Debates about foreign policy will not and should not be suspended just because the country is at war. Nor will the broader partisan political process go on hiatus. The question is not whether there will be debate and disagreement. The question is whether or not it will be done responsibly.

I would offer a few easy-to-declare-but-hard-to-live-up-to standards for evaluating the responsibility of the opposition:

  • Is the opposition fact-based or is it myth-based?  This might seem obvious, but it is remarkable how many foreign policy critiques hinge on a crucial "fact" that turns out to be not so.  
  • Is the opposition rigorous or is it caricatured? Does the opposition hinge on a claim that the Bush administration’s Phase IV planning contained overly optimistic assumptions and did not adequately hedge against those assumptions proving false (a rigorous critique)? Or does the opposition hinge on the claim that the Bush administration’s national security strategy consisted entirely of a vainglorious effort to democratize at bayonet point every country that annoyed the president (a complete caricature that I have heard seriously offered by well-paid, if not well-informed, critics)?
  • Is it ad rem or ad hominem? (Ed. note: Despite four years of high school Latin from the inestimable Miss Fay, I confess I am relying on the Internet, specifically here for this Latin phrase.  Miss Fay, forgive me if I have mangled the Latin.) Does it deal with the substance of the policy or does it focus on emotional arguments aimed at questioning the patriotism or bravery or intentions of the policymakers? Worse, does it seek to criminalize foreign policy disputes (cf. The Plame Affair)? It is fine to point out the consequences of a bad policy (as in "setting an inflexible and arbitrary timeline will encourage the Taliban" or "invading Iraq will provide a rallying cry for Al Qaeda") but I think it crosses the line to accuse backers of those policies of rooting for the enemy. Doubtless there are some partisans who do so, but far fewer than the heated rhetoric on the question would suggest. By the way, a rule of thumb: if the critique deploys the phrase "chicken hawk" or asks policy opponents to look at pictures of wounded soldiers, it is probably going to flunk this particular test.  And, in my experience, a critique that contains a heavy dollop of ad hominem usually falls short of the other standards, too.
  • Is it constructive or merely critical?  It is easier to be a pigeon than a sculptor — it is easier to dump on something than it is to make it better. Does the critique include plausible, viable, realistic alternative courses of action or does the critique content itself with vague "just come home America and our problems will be more manageable" platitudes that cannot withstand serious scrutiny?  Or worse, does the critique consist of a slash-and-burn denunciation of the existing policy followed by a series of policy proposals that are essentially the same existing policy?

Based on these standards, the last decade of opposition has amassed a pretty mixed record, some of which I detail in a chapter on "Domestic Politics and the Long War" in a recent edited volume. Too much of the Democratic critique of Bush was based on myths, caricatures, and ad hominem attack that offered no serious constructive alternative. Too much of the Democratic critique consisted of questioning the patriotism of the Bush administration and then complaining, often without cause, that their patriotism had been questioned when the consequences of their policies were subjected to critical scrutiny.

For the past 18 months, Republicans have had the "responsible opposition" portfolio and thus a chance to rise above the standard set by the Democrats. Grading on this curve, I think they (we) have done pretty well so far, but it is early and the electoral season is a daunting test looming before us.

Alas, there is at least one ominous harbinger, which brings me to the Michael Steele flap.  Over the weekend, RNC Chairman Michael Steele gave apparently unscripted remarks at a fund-raiser in Connecticut. In so doing, Steele managed to violate most of my standards for responsible opposition. Of greatest concern: He based his critique on some outright whoppers, claiming that the Afghanistan war is a "war of Obama’s choosing," and "This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."  

Now a responsible opposition can question whether Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is on a trajectory towards success (leave aside the opposition, a significant fraction of the Obama administration, not to mention the Democratic party, has questioned this point). A responsible opposition can even argue that it is time to cut our losses and seek "lesser evil" outcomes.  (I don’t agree with this position, not yet anyway, but my old colleague Bob Blackwill has offered a well-argued version of this position). A responsible opposition can even argue that the lion’s share of the fault for failure must rest with this administration rather than with the inheritance, as Tony Blankley did recently.

But it is simply not responsible to claim that the entire war, and thus all of the problems in Afghanistan, is Obama’s fault from start to finish. And beyond irresponsible, it is a blunder. That claim is so preposterous that making it wounds one’s own side far more than it wounds the target. (Which may be why Steele is getting some support from hyperpartisan corners on the other side).

If this is a sign of things to come, then I fear Republicans could fail the "responsible opposition" test. Fortunately for the country, this sorry episode had a few silver linings.  Within hours of Steele’s remarks hitting the airwaves, serious Republicans in Congress  and in the think-tank community rose up to admonish Steele and correct the various distortions.  Steele, for his part, has offered something of a clarification, though well short of a full "Jimmy Swaggart apology. I hope in the days to come he will prove more responsible, and that those of us in the bleachers will likewise hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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