Last week, in the 2020 campaign’s sole vice presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) presented herself as part of a growing wing of “national security Democrats” who are quickly populating Congress and — depending on next month’s election results — the White House.
Harris’s positioning is no sudden revelation. As previously reported in The Washington Post, “Those close to Harris describe her as a ‘Truman Democrat,’ a nod to her willingness to use American power to promote American values and interests.”
The comparison to the 33rd commander-in-chief is appropriate. As America’s first post-World War II president, Harry Truman oversaw the expansion and entrenchment of the permanent national security state — including the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the rebranding of the War Department to the Department of Defense.
That is the calling card of the natsec Dems: a thorough adherence to maintaining the status quo machinations of the Pentagon, an unshakable faith in any pronouncement of a U.S. intelligence agency (no matter how flawed the methodology or tainted by institutional bias or politics), and a muscular flexing of American military strength overseas.
In the vice presidential debate’s brief exchange on foreign policy, Harris was sure to check every box on the NatSec Dem list. “I serve on the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate. America’s intelligence community told us Russia interfered in the election of the president of the United States in 2016 and is playing in 2020,” said Harris.
The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election by former Obama officials James Clapper and John Brennen has been the source of such partisan acrimony that there is very little either side would agree on today, including whether the probe was fundamentally skewed, and how much of a threat Russia is to the United States at this very moment. However, Harris went on to cite “public reporting” that the Russian government had put bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, and admonished Donald Trump for not addressing the claim in conversations with Vladimir Putin.
As previously explained at Responsible Statecraft, the Russia bounty allegation has its origins in a single CIA report sourced from Taliban prisoners, and in over three months no other agency has been able to validate it. But this has not prevented other NatSec Dems like Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) from regularly promoting the story as authentic. She is even introducing legislation to sanction anyone tied to the so-far unconfirmed bounties.
The more attention Harris and company give to the Russian bounty story, however, the less she gives to the ongoing, 19-year presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. During her brief presidential campaign, Harris refused to commit to leaving Afghanistan in her first term. A refusal to depart the Central Asian sinkhole is a characteristic shared by every NatSec Dem, particularly Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado, who in July partnered with Republican warhawk Elizabeth Cheney (Wyo.) to block any congressional funding for a potential withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Compared to the neoconservative ideologues of the Republican Party, NatSec Dems are more selective about where they drop bombs. Previously, Harris co-sponsored legislation to end the U.S. participation in the Saudi-led genocide in Yemen and opposes boots-on-the-ground in Venezuela (while still supporting efforts to oust Nicholas Maduro through other means).
These marginal differences don’t preclude political alliances, however. “Of course we have the support of Democrats, but…in fact, seven members of President George W. Bush’s cabinet are supporting our ticket,” said Harris, bragging about seeing eye-to-eye with the old guard of the most bellicose presidential administration of the past 50 years.
Only a month ago Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass) — a particularly hawkish NatSec Dem — made a similar comment that he “never once questioned the loyalty of George W. Bush…to our Constitution,” implying that Moulton believes in the legality of the Iraq War, mass warrantless surveillance, and the torture program.
Harris continued, adding that “over 500 generals, retired generals, and former national security experts, and advisors are supporting our campaign.” This demonstrates the crossover of support between the national security state and their NatSec Dem patrons like Harris (and Duckworth), who earlier this year voted against a progressive amendment to transfer 10 percent of the $740.5 billion Pentagon budget into domestic welfare programs.
Many NatSec Dems learned where their bread was buttered in their careers as either soldiers or intelligence operatives, prior to their election to Congress. Duckworth, Crow, and Moulton are all veterans, while other NatSec Dems like Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia cut their teeth at the CIA. They represent “the absurd gulf between hawkish Hill-dwelling veterans and their brethren back on Main Street,” writes Danny Sjursen, referring to polls that indicate 73 percent of veterans support a full withdrawal from Afghanistan and other less interventionist policies. So do the American people.
But that seems to matter little. In Senator Harris these NatSec Dems have a former prosecutor and a Trumanesque partner on the ticket who would give them an oversized voice in a prospective Joe Biden presidency and a chance to flex their muscular foreign policy vision, their way.