It's National Security, Stupid!

Posted in United States | 13-Aug-03 | Author: Ronald Asmus| Source: Blueprint

Voters trust Republicans far more than Democrats to keep them safe. Democrats must focus on national security to change that image.

Americans are more worried today about their safety from foreign attack than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. Competence and leadership on national security has again become a threshold test for America's politicians and parties. It is a test Democrats are losing. By an outsized margin, the American public trusts Republicans over Democrats when it comes to protecting America. This was a key factor in the drubbing Democrats took in the 2002 mid-term elections. Unless addressed soon, the Democratic security deficit threatens to become an even bigger liability in the 2004 presidential campaign.

Democrats are rightfully angry that White House senior political adviser Karl Rove used national security issues as a political weapon in 2002. But, in many ways, they have only themselves to blame, and they are paying the price for neglecting foreign policy. Fixing the problem requires more than fielding a presidential candidate who can speak credibly about these issues. Democrats must also make a long-term investment to become a party that the American people trust to protect them. The first step for Democrats is to stop taking refuge in three fallacies.

The first fallacy is that Democrats can win solely on domestic issues. Many Democrats still suffer from the illusion that they can return to power by focusing only on areas where the party holds an advantage with voters -- Social Security, health care, unemployment insurance, and other domestic priorities.

They're wrong. A January Democracy Corps survey showed that Republicans enjoyed a 3-to-1 edge on homeland security, and more than a 2-to-1 edge on "keeping America strong." Margins of this magnitude on these issues block many voters from casting their ballots on the domestic issues, where they trust Democrats more.

The second fallacy is that President Bush and the GOP are invincible. Some Democrats argue that the Republican national security advantage is so large that their party can never level the playing field. Instead of developing a credible alternative, they hope the president will falter and create a new opening. Wrong again. Such a view is not only irresponsible, but unnecessary. While the GOP's national security edge is real, it is based as much on perceived Democratic weakness as on Republican strength. The vaunted Bush national security team's record is mixed at best. Indeed, it is hard to recall a national security team as divided and at times dysfunctional, with its record of inconsistency, self-isolation, and missed opportunities.

Consider: On homeland security, Americans remain dangerously exposed to a new, potentially catastrophic, threat. In Afghanistan, Republican ideological phobia against nation-building hampers efforts to win the peace. On North Korea, the administration has backed itself into a nuclear crisis, leaving itself few viable options. And on Iraq, while Bush correctly confronted Saddam Hussein, he clumsily squandered the extraordinary solidarity of the world after 9/11. If one were to measure this administration's effectiveness by its relations with allies -- a traditional benchmark of foreign policy acumen -- it would receive a failing grade.

The third fallacy is the belief that simply criticizing the Bush administration without offering a compelling and viable alternative is a strategy. It's not. Although this administration's record on national security is vulnerable, simply carping about its tactics won't do the job. Because Democrats are often seen to be ducking the tough questions on the use of force, Americans wonder whether Democrats are up to the job of protecting them. Democracy Corps focus groups with swing voters in January showed that most felt safer with Republicans because the GOP errs on the side of action. As a woman in Tampa said, Republicans "are not afraid to stand up for the country immediately; Democrats want to first take a step back."

Democrats must stop relegating national security to the back burner and must put forward their own vision. A Democratic plan has to be bigger than the narrow, nationalistic agenda of the Bush administration. It should build on the legacy of great internationalist Democratic foreign policy presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. They were committed to promoting liberal democracy and were not afraid to use force to protect America, its allies, and its interests. Above all, they articulated a vision of American purpose and power that attracted allies rather than antagonizing them.

They were also not afraid to level with the American people about the need to sacrifice for a noble cause. The Bush administration, by contrast, has replaced President Kennedy's commitment to "pay any price" with a winking pledge that we can super-size for free. Instead of calling for sacrifice at a time of national peril, the president defends the illusion that a go-it-alone foreign policy, ramped-up defense budgets, and huge tax cuts for the wealthy are cost-free and somehow consistent with fiscal balance, homeland security, and responsible social policies at home. One doesn't have to be Clausewitz to understand that this promiscuous approach is bound eventually to undermine both our security and our economy.

It's homeland security, too. A new Democratic foreign policy must start with homeland security. The administration was right to pick up the call, first sounded by Democrats, to create a Department of Homeland Security. But it is refusing to provide the needed financial support to states and localities cash-starved by the recession. Democrats should insist on a budget that provides resources for first responders, security at our ports, and other crucial forms of homeland defense.

In addition to bolstering our defenses, we also need to go on the offensive to address the root causes of terrorism. To be sure, such a strategy must have a military component. But terrorism is primarily a political and ideological problem, and the war against terrorism will be won as much on the political as on the military battlefield. The United States therefore needs to focus far more on political pre-emption. And that means American support for democracy and political and economic transformation.

Nowhere is that kind of change needed more than in the Greater Middle East. With Europe now largely democratic and at peace, the Greater Middle East is the source of our greatest threats -- in the form of future terrorist attacks, financing that flows out of Saudi Arabia and other oil kingdoms for such terror, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The failure of Middle Eastern regimes on nearly every standard of governance is turning it into a geopolitical tinderbox and breeding extreme ideologies, violent movements, and rogue states.

We therefore need a firm commitment to changing the anti-Western regimes from which our enemies draw sanctuary, support, and successors. We must support more participatory and accountable regimes that can live in peace with one another. Like building a secure and democratic Europe over the past century, building something resembling democracy in the Greater Middle East will not be cheap or quick. Democrats must take the lead in developing a long-term strategy to transform this region. And we must champion a radically new national energy policy, with a focus on alternative sources, to make us far less dependent on Mideast oil.

A challenge of this magnitude will require sustained cooperation with allies. Though there are times when the United States has to go it alone, acting unilaterally is fundamentally a sign of diplomatic failure, not success. There is no greater indictment of this administration's incompetence than the fact that in less than 18 months it has managed to turn the largest surge of pro-American sentiment in decades into a tidal wave of anti-U.S. feeling. The great presidents of the 20th century built alliances, rather than tearing them down. Renovating NATO and building up other alliances for a new era should be at the center of a new Democratic foreign policy.

Finally, building a new and credible Democratic foreign policy requires demonstrating that Democrats are ready to defend American values and interests with force when necessary. Democrats must regain a leadership role in reshaping America's military for the 21st century, with a more serious approach to transformation than this administration has shown, and with a deeper bench on these issues than the Democratic Party has developed. It is time for Democrats to stop hiding behind fallacies and start setting the agenda.