TCS Daily

Confronting the Wimp Factor, Part II

By Noah Shachtman - June 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on the Democrats and national security issues. You can read Part 1 here.

The Democrats are toast in 2004 unless they can stand toe-to-toe with George W. Bush on national security. But listen to most of their presidential candidates talk, and you'd think the Democrats have only two options: morph into junior Rumsfelds, or make tracks to the nearest Rainbow Gathering, keeping as far away as possible from anything having to do with American power.

Neither is going to get a Democrat elected, of course. So what stances can they take to make themselves credible on defense? Here are four ideas. (Warning! Red-meat, hyper-partisan rhetoric ahead.)

NATION BUILDING = NATIONAL DEFENSE. The near-anarchy of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan was the terror virus' petri dish. America had a chance to end all this after Operation Enduring Freedom. Instead, the Bush administration paid lip service, not real money and effort, to the rebuilding of Afghanistan. And now we have a warlord-dominated country that doesn't look much more stable than the one that gave rise to 9/11.

Bringing new, open, stable societies to post-war Afghanistan and Iraq could have made George Bush a hero in much of the Islamic world, and robbed the terrorists of much of their popular support. Instead, the ham-handed reconstruction efforts may be adding new millions to the legions of Muslims who hate America. That can't be good news for a skittish American public. And where are those weapons of mass destruction, by the way?

TURN 9/11 AROUND. The President has shown again and again that he's willing to use the fallen Twin Towers as clubs against his opposition. He referred to the 9/11 tragedies numerous times to justify the attack on Iraq. And he seems ready to do so again in next year's election, given the location (New York) and date (early September) of the Republican National Convention.

The Democratic candidate has to turn that symbolism around, if he wants to be competitive in 2004. That could happen with more nuanced versions of inflammatory questions like these: What happened to your promise of getting bin Laden, "dead or alive," Mr. President? How can the architect of 9/11 still be unaccounted for? Why have his cronies been allowed to roam free - even rebuild? And what will it take to get you to make a serious commitment to homeland defense, Mr. President? Wasn't 9/11 bad enough?

HOMELAND OFFENSE. The Bush administration has shortchanged cops, fireman, and ambulance drivers - the guys that put their lives on the line during September 11th. He opposed the creation of a Homeland Security Department. And even now, the Democrats might say, he's not taking the sensible steps to protect our borders and ports. Anti-terror databases are still going uncoordinated; packages and cargo are going uninspected; cops are going untrained. In fact, Slate's Fred Kaplan notes, the Department's budget has actually been cut by a billion and a half dollars. George W. Bush simply hasn't done enough to keep America's children safe from terror. The Democrats will.

A POSSE, NOT A COWBOY. The Democrats' multi-lateral instincts could be a huge benefit to them in the upcoming elections. But only if they quit sounding like they're jockeying to become chairman of the model UN, and start talking like they want to be Commander-in-Chief of a worldwide coalition against the bad guys.

You've heard the Democratic complaints: America doesn't respect its allies anymore, they harrumph. Bush has ignored international opinion. And he's undermined NATO and the UN.

But so what? Voters in Knoxville don't care about a few ruffled feathers in Lyon. What they want to know is: does this all make my kids more or less vulnerable to a terrorist attack?

The fact is, the twin problems of terrorism and the spread of apocalyptic weapons are worldwide, and slippery. There aren't enough spy planes in our hangars, aren't enough smart bombs in our arsenal, aren't enough troops in our ranks to police everywhere by ourselves. We can't be all places and all times. It's impossible.

The White House has long cultivated a rugged, ten-gallon image for Bush. Maybe a cowboy like Dubya can attack Iraq by his lonesome. But it takes a posse to look after the whole world.

Building alliances, strengthening international watchdogs - this isn't so we can all sit around and sing kumbaya, Democrats could say. It's so we can squeeze North Korea, and get the Bomb out of the hands of a madman. It's so we can use our allies' leverage to keep the Ayatollahs in Iran from going nuclear. It's so we can take the global fight against terrorism to every last corner of the earth.

(Thanks to Michael O'Hanlon, Dana Allin, Tim Bergreen, and Jeremy Rosner for their input into this story.)

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