This past week witnessed an amazing confluence of events. Two days after Ned Lamont beat incumbent Senator Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary, which was widely heralded as proof that the Democrats are weak on national security, British authorities arrested more than twenty British Muslims who were allegedly set to carry out a terrorist plot similar in scale to 9/11. Without missing a beat, Lieberman immediately drew attention to these arrests in order to make the case that Lamont, who wants to pull out of Iraq, is a defeatist who will embolden the terrorists by displaying weakness. Simultaneously top GOP leaders, including Karl Rove and VP Dick Cheney, reached out to Lieberman, and a new GOP ad (which at first included a Hitler mustache painted onto Howard Dean) was unveiled, labeling Democrats as “Defeat-ocrats”.
The first lesson here is obvious: Democrats had better come up with a strong and clear message on how they plan to combat terrorism, because it is the defining issue of our age and it is not going to go away.
But the Democrats need a lot more than the list of initiatives they called for, including increased money for homeland security and talk of building alliances. These simply will not suffice given the challenges we face. And on Iraq, saying that we should withdraw our troops without any discussion of the possible consequences and their repercussions is both irresponsible and a political non-starter: it will not even begin to convince the electorate that the Democrats are serious about national security.
So here are my thoughts on what the Democrats need to do:
1. Point out how the recent arrests in Britain do not validate the Bush foreign policy, but on the contrary completely contradict it. The suspects in the new plot are all British citizens, supposedly with links to Pakistan, who were prepared to deal a terrible blow with very simple weapons. They were likely further radicalized by what they perceive as the Western war on Islam, and while they very well may have tried to attack us irrespective of the Iraq War, that conflict has done nothing to diminish these types of threats. Most likely, the war in fact has increased their likelihood. What this episode should teach us is that the greatest risk of terrorism comes from cells within our borders, and from those being trained and inspired by radical extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. If anything, the Iraq War has given extremists a fertile training ground, and provided them with all kinds of recruiting opportunities based on fiascos such as Abu Ghraib.
2. While it is certainly appropriate to point to the Iraq war as both a strategic mistake and a failure of leadership, the Democrats nonetheless have to be thoughtful about how to minimize our losses and do our best to put in place the elements that have the greatest chance of producing a stable, friendly, and at least mildly democratic regime. Democrats must acknowledge that if we are too quick to abandon Iraq, the situation could be become worse and the threats of terrorism much greater. Timetables for withdrawal are not the most sensible course; what is needed is a much clearer delineation of what constitutes “success” or “victory,” and the steps necessary to achieve this. Americans don’t want to see Iraq become the new pre 9/11 Afghanistan; neither do they want to “stay the course”. So the Democrats need to provide a third alternative.
3. Taking the long view, the Democrats must not shy away from describing the terrorist threat in the strongest terms, and emphasizing their commitment to fighting terrorism head-on. The case they should make is not that they differ with the GOP on the severity of the threat, but that they will combat it in much smarter ways. Whereas Republicans and the Bush Administration want to lump all terrorists together into a “global war on terrorism,” it is much better to focus on the regimes that currently harbor terrorists and to enhance our law enforcement capabilities so that we can continue to thwart the terrorist cells that represent the most direct threats. (For additional thoughts on the larger national security narrative, see last week’s post on a new foreign policy doctrine.)
4. On a procedural matter, it is essential to point out the upside-down priorities of the GOP, which thinks gay marriage or a flag burning amendment warrants more debate and discussion that domestic spying and accountability from our civilian and military leadership. The public needs to know that with Democrats in charge the government will focus on key national security issues and not be distracted by right-wing “culture war” issues that only divide the country and sap our national energy.
5. Once the Democrats have established respectability on matters of national security, they can point out the irony that while we are fighting religious extremists abroad, the GOP is emboldening religious extremists at home. From the anti-gay agenda to banning federal funding of new embryonic stem cell research, the GOP is in bed with groups whose religious philosophy is oppressive, anti-modern, and bigoted.
Any Democrat who doesn’t think long and hard about national security and move beyond anti-war sound bites does not deserve to win. The Democratic Party does the country a terrible disservice when it abdicates its responsibility to craft an effective strategy for national security that allows the failed and misguided GOP policies to remain unchecked and uncontested.