On May 7 and May 8, 1945, the Nazis surrendered to the Allies in Europe. The single man more responsible for that surrender than anyone else was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Less than two months later, the British populace voted Churchill out of office.
Clement Atlee, Churchill’s successor, ran on a platform of cradle-to-grave government care. The war was over. Britain had survived. British voters refocused on domestic matters. Having experienced the hardship of war, they now sought the comfort of government-provided economic security. Churchill was out on his ear because the Allies won World War II.
The same may hold true in the 2008 election. President George W. Bush has survived the unremitting attacks of his opponents, largely on the strength of his consistent and unwavering commitment to muscular national defense. Counter-intuitively, this strategy paid off best politically while the war in Iraq was controversial. Bush’s enemies took the position that America was bound to lose in Iraq and ought to pull out as soon as possible; Bush took the position that America could win the peace just as it had won the war. By positioning themselves as advocates of American defeat, Bush’s opponents handed him the 2004 election.
Today, the Bush administration has pulled the Iraq situation from the fire. General David Petreaus has led a remarkable restoration of security in Iraq. The troop surge has dramatically lowered violence, providing a powerful rebuke to the anti-Bush administration naysayers.
Because of American success in Iraq, the war there has become a secondary issue in the 2008 campaign. Even Republican primary voters, the usual stalwart defense-first constituency, are looking away from defense-centric candidates like Rudy Giuliani and toward social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.
Americans, like the post-World War II British, are not immune to the tendency toward willful blindness in the aftermath of victory. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Americans elected Bill Clinton, an economics-first candidate pledging greater government spending. For nearly a decade, Clinton ignored the rising threat of radical Islam. Sept. 11 was a partial consequence.
America cannot afford to take its eye off the foreign-policy ball. There are other threats on the horizon. Despite the rosy outlook of the National Intelligence Estimate, Iran will not simply discard its dreams of nuclear glory. Russia remains an antagonistic influence in the Middle East and elsewhere. China continues its military buildup and economic warfare. To elect a "peacetime" candidate could be a profound mistake with long-lasting ramifications.
In 1945, Churchill was a political victim of his own success. When the Allies emerged victorious from World War II, voters felt that Churchill’s mission was complete. Churchill, of course, recognized looming threats: the threat of creeping socialism generally and in particular the threat of the violent and tyrannical Soviet Union. In 1951, Churchill would regain the prime ministership on a platform of free markets domestically and peace through strength with regard to defense.
Britain’s Atlee mistake did not result in tragedy. America may not be so lucky in 2008. If Americans opt, myopically, for domestic government-sponsored swaddling over tough foreign policy, they may be re-opening the door to the forces of terror.