The Democrats bland new national-security plan.

Military analysis.
April 3 2006 6:16 PM

Real Vague

The Democrats' national-security plan is bland and banal—but the Republicans' is worse.

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Howard Dean

The Democrats' biggest challenge these days is persuading the American public that they, too, have the cojones to storm shores and drop bombs should the need arise, and so last week the party's congressional honchos released a brief, stars-and-stripes-lined document titled Real Security: The Democratic Plan To Protect America and Restore Leadership in the World.

It's more a rough outline than a "plan"; it raises at least as many questions as it answers; it reeks of banality. Then again, it's a committee-drafted, election-year banner, not a treatise in Foreign Affairs or an op-ed piece in the New YorkTimes. Does it do the job? Will it assuage independent voters who dislike Bush but worry that liberals lack resolve? Probably not, by itself, but it does introduce some themes that we'll be hearing a lot more of in the coming months.

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There's the title—"Real Security"—and a phrase that appears early in the brochure: "tough and smart." Not bad as slogans. The document's to-do list includes securing loose nuclear materials by 2010, ending reliance on Middle Eastern oil by 2020, passing a new GI bill of rights for veterans, increasing "human intelligence" (i.e., spies), training first-responders in homeland security, and restoring international alliances.

The list may seem obvious, like those "Do not use in water" tags that come with electrical appliances—except that Bush & Co. have been spinning fan blades in bathtubs around the world the past four years. This is the advantage that the Democrats hold at the starting gate: The Republican administration has violated so many precepts of International Relations 101 that clichés take on the air of wisdom. It may be that the Dems don't need to put forth their own agenda; promising to pull the plug out of the socket might be sufficient.

For better or worse, though, this document does offer an agenda—beyond the list of no-brainers cited above—and here's where things get vague and, in some cases, troublesome.

One item on the checklist: "Rebuild a state-of-the-art military by making the necessary investment in equipment and manpower so that we can project power to protect America wherever and whenever necessary." What is the "necessary investment"? Where and when is it "necessary" to "project power"? And what is a "state-of-the-art" military? What kinds of forces are appropriate to 21st-century warfare (and what is that, by the way)? Do we need all the weapons that the Bush Pentagon is funding, let alone more? Given budget constraints, choices must be made between equipment and manpower; what choices would a Democratic president make? (One woeful legacy of Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as secretary of defense is that he set out to make those choices but never did.) A document of this sort doesn't have to—and shouldn't—answer these questions, but it might raise at least an eyebrow of recognition that they exist.

I especially like this item: "Eliminate Osama bin Laden, destroy terrorist networks like al Qaeda, finish the job in Afghanistan, and end the threat posed by the Taliban." A nice laundry list, but is the Bush administration really not trying to do these things? And how would a Democrat do them more effectively?

Another: "Eliminate terrorist breeding grounds by combating the economic, social, and political conditions that allow extremism to thrive." OK, but with what money and what kinds of projects? "Redouble efforts to stop nuclear weapons development in Iran and North Korea"? Any ideas how?

Sometimes the authors finesse, as when they say 2006 should be the year of transition to "full Iraqi sovereignty with responsible redeployment of U.S. forces." Sometimes they're too concrete, for instance: "Screen 100 percent of container and cargo bound for the U.S. in ships or airplanes at the point of origin." Really? Is this goal remotely feasible? How many millions of boxes per day would have to be examined?

In a three-page campaign brochure, it might have been better not to get into details at all than to dip just deep enough to sire questions and, worse yet, doubts.

In today's Washington Post, Fred Hiatt—head of the paper's editorial page and a strong supporter both of the war in Iraq and of Bush's campaign to spread democracy—criticizes the Democrats' document on the grounds that its authors "do not find space to mention democracy even once. … There is no discussion of a broader threat of a 'global war' or a long Cold War-struggle. … There is no mention of preemptive action. … There is no discussion of values, of liberty or generosity. … The pollsters may be satisfied, but John F. Kennedy would not recognize his party."

First of all, John F. Kennedy's Democratic Party—if, by that, Hiatt means the party that pledged to go anywhere and fight any foe—died in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta long ago. Second, George W. Bush's quest to liberate the world has met so many serious setbacks as to call into question, if not to discredit, the whole doctrine.

Hiatt is right that, at some point, a Democratic candidate will have to delve into the morass, untangle the dilemmas between American values and American interests and determine to what extent our foreign policy should reflect one or the other. But there's no reason for the Democratic Party to declare a formula now, especially since President Bush hasn't come up with a clear policy on the question either; hence his friendly dealings, some of them appropriate in terms of national interests, with Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, and Pakistan, to name a few.

The real contest will begin when both parties nominate their candidates, at which point this document may or may not be a dead letter. For now, though, the Dems have hoisted a banner: real security vs. rhetorical security; tough and smart vs. tough and, well, not so smart. Let that debate begin.