This is written in the hope of commemorating an
inflexion point in the life of the admirable Democratic Party of the
United States. It is to exhort Party loyalists and sensible moderates
on both sides of the political spectrum who might favor the Democratic
Party today -- at least in their hearts, although not necessarily in
their minds. The Democratic Party is certainly closer to my heart,
even though its actions in the past year have strained my loyalties to
it owing to its directionless "leadership" and their
inability to unite the party on a common well thought-out platform.
Owing to those factors, and the spineless progression of the party's
policies on various issues, I had predicted a few weeks before the
2002 Elections that the Party would lose the Senate. Not that I am a
pundit in any way, but my brief
note back then was titled "Do
Democrats even deserve to win back the Senate in Elections 2002?",
where I said "...we have seen
enough to predict that Republicans will take over both the Senate and
Congress this November, in the absence of any magical or tumultuous
event between now and then...."
That, in spite of knowing
fully well that the Democratic Party appeared to have higher
public ratings at that time than the GOP - or ratings at least as high - on virtually every issue outside of National Security and
That brings me to what this article is about: National Security and Foreign Policy in the context of the Democratic Party. I address this not just to the Democratic Party and its leadership, but also to its liberal base. After the losses in Elections 2002, it is obvious to many that the Party needs some soul-searching in order to re-establish the link between its principles and its policies. What is not as obvious is that its most liberal base is also in need of the same. An analogy might be in order. Former President Bill Clinton, in his masterful speech recently at the British Labor Party conference (see Salon.com), said some inspiring things. But one of his comments related to the leadership of the U.S. Republican Party (and the British "Tories"): "...I understand now that your Tories are calling themselves 'compassionate conservatives.' (Laughter). I admire a good phrase. (Laughter). I respect as a matter of professional art adroit rhetoric, and I know that all politics is a combination of rhetoric and reality. Here is what I want you to know. The rhetoric is compassionate, the conservative is the reality. (Applause)..." The significance of Mr. Clinton's words applies to the Democratic Party and its base as well, but in a different sense. For many liberals, the rhetoric effectively is compassion (and it is a rhetoric that has been partly matched by reality) but the scope of the rhetoric is out of sync with the reality of today's dangerous world. What I mean by that is two things. One is that the compassion must be counterbalanced with the toughness that America needs today. Second, compassion cannot be applied simply without a historical, geopolitical and philosophical context. I will explore these thoughts in this article and the next.
Elections 2002 - Economy and Prescription Drugs vs. National Security and Foreign Policy
Some pundits say that President Bush and the Republicans won a mandate in the most recent elections. What I believe they received was a vote of confidence, and that is to their credit. It is easy though to forget the closeness of critical races, the fact that Democrats did retain the bulk of their seats and that they captured a few Governorships, even in a state as Republican as Arizona. The totality of the evidence suggests that the country is still split nearly 50-50, with a very small (yet potent) percentage of the vote having tilted in favor of Republicans. It is obviously a shift that should worry Democrats, but it is a shift that cannot simply be explained away by the lack of compelling enough alternatives on economic and social policy. The example of Saxby Chambliss' victory in Georgia over patriot Max Cleland, on the issue of patriotism, is perhaps a good illustration of where the Democrats' real Achilles heel is.
As an outside observer, I have been flummoxed for months by a fundamental lack of understanding in Democratic Party circles and analysts, on the importance of National Security and Foreign Policy (NSFP for short). Responding to Republican attacks on Democrats' NSFP weaknesses by focusing on the economy or prescription drugs is, in my opinion, the best way to confirm to the public that the alleged weakness is accurate. Contrary to the most commonly cited ideas, I have always felt that the only way the Democrats could have won the 2002 elections is by focusing both on National Security/Foreign Policy and the Economy as the top issues, giving them equal importance. To those who may question how the Democrats could have even made a dent in the President's and the GOP's lead on NSFP, I will offer a few examples. Before I do that let me emphasize that my attempt here is not to blame Republicans or the President (or to imply that they are in any way responsible for any national security lapses), but rather show Democrats where they could have found an opportunity to show their mettle.
Nothing symbolizes the urgent (internal) National Security needs of today more than 9/11 and the Patriot Act that followed. To be sure the President and his team did very well in vanquishing many members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban Government in Afghanistan. The President also deserves much credit for keeping the security of the country stable since 9/11 while working to put together the initial international support for the Afghan Government under Hamid Karzai. Against this backdrop though, the Democrats lost various opportunities presented by the mainstream media and American citizens (such as Coleen Rowley), to put forth ideas to take steps beyond the President's major accomplishments. We did not hear any Democrats (or Republicans) highlight in the campaign as to how 9/11 could have been largely prevented by reinforcing cockpit doors in all airplanes prior to 9/11, as soon as the loud "chatter" and repeated threats of hijacking surfaced (presumably in response to which Atty. Gen. Ashcroft started taking private jets : CBS). The reason this is important is to understand and signify that the costs of prevention may often be much lower than that of cures. We heard no Democrats promote the fact that plans to exterminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (largely along the lines of how it happened) had already been made by former President Clinton's team (Time) and that the Bush administration did not follow-up on these plans in time, while simultaneously cutting anti-terrorism funding (NYT), until it was too late (i.e., 9/11 happened). It would not have hurt to explicitly point out that credit was not given to President Clinton's plans, while blame was however placed on the latter by some for letting Osama bin Laden survive as long as he has. This, in spite of the fact that high precision aerial bombing of high magnitude, and one of the largest worldwide manhunts in history, with far greater worldwide cooperation than was available to President Clinton, is yet to net the elusive mass murderer Osama.
No real effort was made by Democrats to point out how (and why) an Independent Commission was prevented from being formed to investigate 9/11, at a time when the full truth was needed to be revealed to prevent future attacks of this magnitude, and to provide the families of the heroes who died on 9/11 with the closure they were looking for. The mismanagement of the Homeland Security Bill by the Democrats epitomized the incompetence of the Party leadership on this key National Security issue. Here is an agency that Democrats had proposed for a long time, and had been ignored by the administration until a whistleblower (Coleen Rowley) started to talk (Time). When the administration finally agreed to a Homeland Security Agency, they supported the House version which exempted the agency from the Whistleblower Protection Act (Washington Times) and the Freedom of Information Act (Washington Times). For these and/or presumably other reasons a "need for flexibility" in firing workers was portrayed as a key requirement of this Bill. Finally, the President blamed Democrats for not supporting the passage of the Bill (with the "flexibility"), and the Democrats led by Sen. Daschle stood by and took the thrashing without much complaints, thereby implying that the President was right. Although any reasonable individual could have asked whether protection from the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act does not in fact signify more risk of future omissions (and lost American lives) and unaccountability, I was left bewildered as to how Democrats could not equate "more flexibility" with "less accountability and security" and make this an issue of public debate. (Is it not true that over a year from 9/11, we would have learnt much less than what we know if not for some degree of whistleblower protection?) Perhaps President Bush has good reasons to support the House Bill, but in the absence of substantive, well-communicated, thoughtful challenges, the Democrats lost their ability to influence the outcome.
Another aspect of the Bush administration's policy post 9/11 which has been controversial is the loss of civil liberties since the passage of the Patriot Act. Many Americans seem to think that this Act goes too far, but the Democrats again showed how little they seemed involved in National Security issues by not proposing and aggressively pushing a workable alternative. We have seen mostly criticisms of the Patriot Act in the media; but to be fair to Mr. Ashcroft and President Bush, one cannot simply blame them without providing an alternate system (not merely criticisms on one or more provisions) that would work well in the post 9/11 world of today. Either the Democrats believed the Patriot Act was necessary or they felt they had no alternative - and stayed silent. Either way, they demonstrated they lacked the ability to independently address the fears and concerns of the American public, in a manner that did not require the passage of all the measures included in the Patriot Act. One may debate about how justifiable the fears of the people are, but the fact of the matter is the fears exist(ed) and it behooves the Democratic Party to address them effectively.
Foreign Policy and Today's World Order
Foreign policy has been an obvious gaping hole in the Democratic leadership's portfolio. As seen in the case of the Iraq-a-thon that played out over months, nothing spoke more loudly about the lack of a vision on their part than their relative silence on possible alternative yet realistic strategies to deal with Iraq, as opposed to vocalizing mere objections to President Bush's plans. Yes, we saw a lot written about how the justification for war was not what the President made it out to be, that Saddam was not as much of a threat as he was made out to be, that unilateralism was bad, and that there were wag the dog scenarios in play. In fact I documented pretty much every one of the pros and cons, also agreeing with most of the published opinion out there that Congressional and U.N. approvals should precede a war with Iraq. However, none of that changes the fact that President Bush's approach towards Saddam ended up being effective in getting the U.N. to listen and act against the murderous Iraqi maniac. Mr. Bush also deserves credit for heeding much of the good advice that came his way on first exploring a multilateralist approach. What does that leave for the Democrats? Quite a lot. I happen to think that while belligerence may be a solution that helped get us a U.N. resolution today, it is a one-off solution that not only risks annoying our allies but also loses its luster when applied by default as a blunt instrument of foreign policy. Nevertheless, suffice it to say that the Democrats lost a significant opportunity to come up with an comprehensive foreign policy alternative that goes above and beyond President Bush's plans.
Iraq is probably the best case illustrating the growing gap between the rhetoric of the staunchest liberals and the reality of the world we face today. One way to understand this gap is by reading Samuel P. Huntington's expansive review "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order." Another way (for those who lack the time) is to comprehend some of the main trends noted in Huntington's book, which I summarize here since I tend to agree with many of his inferences. Since the end of the Cold War, the world is largely being defined on civilizational fault lines with increasing economic prosperity or cultural expression in key parts of the world leading to diminishing American and Western influence. Various countries around the globe are in an arms race - partly to produce weapons of mass destruction - with the aim of creating additional deterrents against enemy attacks, whether that enemy is the U.S., the West or their own immediate neighbors. These trends have already weakened substantially the ability of the United States and the West to influence regimes infamous for oppression and torture to "democratize". "Culture" and "religion" are often the understandable, yet inexcusable, explanations for suppression of human rights and dissent. Attempts to use the United Nations to even chide or rebuke human rights offenders have become more impossible over time, let alone be able to help suffering people in need without endangering innocent human life through conflict or war. In other words, the U.N. has become more powerless and there is no global agent to secure the rights and lives of the minorities and women across the world who are oppressed, tortured or killed. To add to it all, the United States' credibility is on the line because of its defiance of the same body that it expects rogue nations to obey, and its oft-repeated cry of doing what it does for the good of the "world" and "civilization" itself, while acting in a manner that clearly indicates its main goal is its own self-interest (which it should be). In the meantime, Islamic militancy and terrorism are rearing their heads strongly, as evinced by the murderous acts of 9/11 and beyond.
It is against that backdrop that we must evaluate our philosophies and policies of today. While healthy dissent is understandable, welcome, and desirable - to ensure that all the right questions are asked and answered before we march off to war - it is nevertheless intriguing that major geopolitical and historical developments across the globe continue to have no influence on the outlook of the staunchest anti-war liberals and their supporters in Congress. Without a doubt, trying to establish short-term peace by avoiding war is an effective strategy when one is convinced that the impact of war avoidance today would be to foster long-term peace. One may also have good reasons to avoid war if the costs (lives, money) significantly outweigh the benefits. However, should these arguments not be balanced by a critical analysis of the real prospects of long-term peace if we simply decided to sit tight today? In my opinion, it is this latter half of the equation that many liberals and Democrats don't seem to incorporate in their philosophy of peace and compassion. Postponing inevitable wars or conflicts does not constitute maintenance of peace.
With that thought, we will now present in Part II, what we believe are the policy imperatives for the Democratic Party to address the confluence of national security and foreign policy events that have shaken the party since 9/11. No doubt, we hope that the staunchest liberals take note of our recommendations and support the emergence of a new Party.