A shifting appreciation for dissent

A SHIFTING APPRECIATION FOR DISSENT…. Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter appeared on MSNBC’s “Countdown” this week, and made a provocative comment that’s worth considering in more detail.

Keith Olbermann noted that Republican attacks on President Obama’s national security and counter-terrorism policies are both hypocritical and wrong. He asked Alter how the GOP can defend its own baseless rhetoric. Alter responded by considering the Republican criticism in a larger context.

“I think [Republicans are] in a place now where they just want to hurt Obama.

“And what they don’t get — I wish they would look into their souls a little bit — is that if they convey over and over again that the president of the United States is weak, what does that do? It emboldens the terrorists, and I don’t say that lightly.

“But think of terrorists overseas, or at home, who might be plotting an attack. If they think that the president is weak, which he is not. He’s manifestly not. He’s killed twice as many of them, not to put too fine a point on it, with these Predator [drones], as his predecessor did.

“He’s not weak, if they continue to convey that he is weak, that gives serious help to the terrorists. So, I think the pressure should now be on these Republicans — aren’t you helping the terrorists by insisting against all evidence?”

Alter added that the onus is now on Republicans to consider whether they are “harming us” with their dishonest rhetoric.

Olbermann found this compelling. And if I’m being honest, at first blush, I had a gut-level appreciation for what Alter was arguing.

But it’s probably worth pausing and taking a deep breath before going too far down this road.

This is going back a bit, but three years ago this month, Ed Koch wrote a column defending George W. Bush, insisting that criticism of the White House might undermine our security.

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are seeking to humble, embarrass and, if they can, destroy the President and the prestige of his position as the Commander-in-Chief who is responsible for the safety of our military forces and the nation’s defenses. By doing so, they are adding to the dangers that face our nation.

Right-wing blogs were delighted. Conservatives implored those mean liberals who “disparaged” the president to consider how inherently dangerous their criticism of the president might be.

Throughout the Bush/Cheney era, this was as common as the sunrise. Dissent was equated with disloyalty. Prominent conservatives would casually throw around words like “treason,” “traitor,” “fifth columnists,” and “Tokyo Rose” comparisons. In his capacity as the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer went so far as to warn Americans that they “need to watch what they say.”

It wasn’t complicated — to be patriotic was to support the president in a time of war. “Don’t you understand?” conservatives would ask Bush/Cheney detractors. “Al Qaeda can hear you. We can’t appear divided in a time of crisis. We can’t let the world think our Commander in Chief lacks Americans’ support. We can’t show weakness — and you’re helping our enemies.”

That was the right’s line, right up until Election Day 2008, at which point dissent became the principal responsibility of all decent American patriots. It’s funny how that works out.

Which leads us back to Alter’s on-air comments. As a liberal offended by senseless Republican attacks on President Obama, I can appreciate the appeal of his argument. Indeed, it’s satisfying on a certain level to think the shoe should be on the other foot for a while.

Oh yeah?” a voice in our head says to the right, “now it’s your turn to have your patriotism questioned for having the audacity to criticize the president in a time of war. It’s your turn to be told that terrorists will exploit your comments. It’s your turn to explain why you’re dividing America when we should be coming together with a sense of common purpose.”

This is even more compelling when, as a purely factual matter, what liberals said about Bush was true, and what conservatives are saying about Obama is not.

But I nevertheless recommend caution. Conservatives were wrong when they to tried to stifle dissent, and they broke with American norms when they compared us to terrorist sympathizers because we disapproved of the president they embraced.

Dissent and debate is always healthy. As a factual matter, Republicans and their far-right allies really are trying to undermine American leadership during a crisis, but in our free society, they’re allowed to do that.

I’m reluctant to tell anyone they’re “emboldening terrorists” based on their political beliefs. That’s just not how we’re supposed to do things in this country, even if the right forgot this principle for seven years.