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Democrats Can Win on National Security

By Will Marshall

Facing a skeptical, change-hungry electorate, Republicans figure their best hope for staving off disaster in this fall's election is to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11. The Democrats' response? Bring it on.

Democrats have two solid reasons for believing they are poised to win the argument over national security. First, the hellish, unceasing carnage in Iraq has demolished public confidence in President Bush's claims that his policies are making us safer. Second, party leaders and policy analysts have begun to articulate a coherent alternative to his war on terror.

That's crucial, because the political gains from lambasting Bush on Iraq are limited by the public's deep ambivalence about what course to follow next. According to a recent Democracy Corps survey, the party's familiar indictment of Bush's mistakes in Iraq gains traction with voters only when Democrats couple them with their own positive ideas for protecting the country.

To craft a winning message on national security, both for the midterm election and for the 2008 presidential campaign, Democrats should stress six themes:

America needs a bigger and better military. The Bush administration has relied excessively on military power to advance U.S. security goals. Hence, its failure to provide our Armed Forces with the resources they need to fulfill their missions is as incomprehensible as it is indefensible. As a result, the escalating conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the all-volunteer force to the breaking point. Democrats should step forward with a plan to repair the damage, by adding more troops, replenishing depleted stocks of equipment, and reorganizing the force around the new missions of unconventional warfare, counterinsurgency, and civil reconstruction.

America needs a political strategy for strengthening Muslim moderates. A stronger military is essential, but it should serve -- not substitute for -- a practical strategy for defeating jihadism. The president says his political goal is to trigger a democratic revolution in the Middle East, but military force is rarely the right tool for that job. Of course, the United States must use force vigorously to stop terrorists who are plotting to kill its citizens. But America can't kill an ideology with guns alone; indeed, the overuse of force risks driving fence sitters in the Muslim world into the jihadist camp.

Victory in this struggle means discrediting the jihadist creed and thereby reducing the number of people willing to become suicide bombers and terrorists. America needs the contemporary equivalent of Cold War containment: a political strategy that uses all of our might -- economic, cultural, diplomatic, as well as military -- to strengthen the forces of moderation and modernization in the Muslim world. In fact, we should stop talking about a "war on terror" altogether and instead describe our goal as helping moderate Muslims prevail in their historic struggle against violent extremists.

A new "grand strategy" for change in the greater Middle East should also include more creative U.S. diplomatic engagement. That means hard bargaining with such noxious regimes as Iran and Syria, as well as with friendlier ones like Saudi Arabia that have been exporting Islamist radicalism for decades. It will also require a new U.S. push to mediate regional conflicts -- between Israel and the Palestinians, certainly, but also the Kashmir crisis -- that fuel extremism.

For this we will need to tap strengths the White House has ignored: the support of prosperous allies who share our values, an international system in which the United States plays a leading role, and the attractive power of our country's animating ideals.

America needs more allies in the fight. You don't have to read Machiavelli to know that safety lies in uniting your friends and dividing your enemies. Yet, thanks to its moralizing and bullying unilateralism, the Bush administration has done just the opposite.

For Democrats, mending the breach in trans-Atlantic relations should be the top priority. Many conservatives dismiss the European Union as a utopian project or, worse, a potential superpower rival. Democrats should embrace a strong and politically united Europe as a strategic partner in combating terrorism, halting the spread of nuclear weapons, expanding world trade, and slowing climate change.

Rejecting both Republican United Nations-bashing and the toothless multilateralism favored on the left, Democrats also should think boldly about a new collective security architecture for the 21st century. Princeton's Anne Marie Slaughter, for example, has proposed a new division of labor that puts the United Nations in charge of economic and social development, while shifting the burden of enforcement and peacemaking to an expanded NATO that includes democracies beyond Europe, such as India. Whatever form it takes, the U.N. system must accommodate rising powers and develop the means to enforce its "responsibility to protect" people, not just states, from violence.

America's moral authority matters. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika has somehow lost sight of a simple, historical fact: The world's willingness to accept U.S. leadership has always depended as much on America's moral prestige as on its power. The troika's stubborn refusal to bring the war on terror under the rule of law has badly tarnished America's reputation as a beacon of human rights and dignity and a democratically accountable government.

Democrats can credibly pledge to put America's fight against jihadism on a firm moral and legal footing. That means rejecting prisoner abuse and torture and establishing more open and fair procedures for trying terrorist suspects. But it also means leading an international effort to write new rules governing how civilized countries deal with the scourge of terrorism. Because they deliberately target the innocent, terrorists are guilty of crimes against humanity and should not be entitled to the same legal status as soldiers who become prisoners of war.

Although the Bush administration's revolutionary rhetoric has discredited democracy in the eyes of many, Democrats should not retreat from their party's historic conviction that the steady advance of freedom makes for a safer, saner, and more just world. Instead of trying to impose America's model of democracy by force, they should embrace the gradual, bottom-up liberalization of the greater Middle East. As Larry Diamond and Michael A. McFaul have proposed, this approach means more dollars and moral support for indigenous reformers -- human rights activists, democratic political parties, independent labor unions, and media. Over time, they can build the civil institutions that underpin liberal democracy. Muslim moderates and reformers must find their own ways to reconcile Islam and modernity, but we should back them, just as we helped reformers in the Soviet bloc before the fall of communism.

America needs a stronger economy and society. In the Clinton administration, it was axiomatic that America's military strength derives from its economic dynamism and social cohesion. The Bush administration's economic and domestic policies, however, are utterly divorced from its war on terror. They have weakened the economic underpinnings of America's strength and deepened the country's divisions.

Democrats should spell out credible plans for reversing GOP economic and energy policies that have wrecked the nation's finances, mortgaged its future to foreign lenders, and made America more abjectly addicted to foreign oil than ever. They should demand that Congress reimpose strict discipline on the federal budget and overhaul our regressive tax system to make it simpler and fairer. They should rally behind proposals for slapping a mandatory cap on carbon emissions. That's a public policy twofer that would cut oil consumption dramatically and reduce global warming. And it's time for Democrats to bring new ideas and energy to the fights against poverty, broken families, failing schools, and economic inequality at home.

America needs a new spirit of shared sacrifice. Bush's constant evocation of the evil arrayed against America suggests he sees himself as a Lone Star version of Winston Churchill trying to awaken the civilized world to mortal peril. Yet his failure to ask Americans to give up anything important belies the urgency of his threat. He won't expand the military, won't restrain the free-spending GOP Congress, won't cut corporate welfare, and won't cut oil and gas subsidies that deepen America's dependence on petro-despots around the world.

Democrats should show the courage to challenge all Americans -- not just those in the Armed Forces -- to share the sacrifices necessary to defend liberal democracy. It's time for a tougher brand of "ask not" liberalism that requires the privileged to put more, not less, into the common pot; that makes it more expensive for all of us to waste energy or consume oil; and, that challenges all young Americans -- especially those on elite campuses -- to give something back by doing military or civilian national service.

Republicans won the last two national elections largely on the strength of their perceived strength on terrorism and security. Now, however, Americans are looking for something more than endless war and expressions of resolve. They are looking for a political strategy that can contain the jihadist virus rather than make it worse. Instead of waiting until 2008, Democrats should seize this chance to show the nation they are ready to take on America's most important fight.

Will Marshall is president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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