Boston, Mass–The Democrats in Boston must have been shocked to see the results of the latest Washington Post poll that not only failed to reflect any broad movement towards their presumptive candidate, but growing support for the president’s handling of the war on terrorism. Theresa Heinz Kerry noted during her speech that “there is a value in taking a stand,” and unwittingly touched on the reason why the president remains popular with the electorate on issues concerning the war. Taking a stand is the essence of leadership, charting a direction and moving forward. It is something at which president Bush excels. He stands for something, and the country knows it. His opponents, by contrast, have been trying hard to develop policies that, when examined closely, stand for very little.
In part, the Democrats are constrained by the internal party politics of the national-security question. They have settled on a few safe themes designed maintain party unity and not alienate the centrist voters they need to win. However, when it comes down to stating actual policies, vagueness is the rule. We hear frequently that John Kerry is committed to “hunting down the terrorists” or “finishing the job in Afghanistan,” the national security equivalent of being in favor of Mom and apple pie. The Democratic platform states that “With John Kerry as commander-in-chief, we will never wait for a green light from abroad when our safety is at stake,” yet the Democrats would also oppose the use of military force absent a broad international consensus. What this balancing act would mean in practice is anybody’s guess, but one suspects it heralds a return to the temporizing security posture of the Clinton years. Senator Kerry has stated that he “can run a war that’s more thoughtful and more effective” than President Bush, and half the pages in the Democratic platform mention the war on terrorism in one way or another. But the Democratic policy proposals are either nebulous, or echoes of actions the Bush administration has already taken. They include things like improving intelligence capabilities (being done), cutting off terrorist funds (being done), preventing Afghanistan from being a terrorist safe haven (pretty much accomplished almost three years ago), and engaging in democratization efforts to strike at the roots of the terrorism problem (sounds suspiciously like the president’s Greater Middle East Initiative).
The Democrats have also shown little in the way of imagination or new ideas when it comes to broader issues of national security. While the Bush administration has been implementing the revolutionary policies of Defense Transformation modernizing our overseas deployment structure through the Global Posture Realignment, and reconceptualizing the meaning of 21st-century national security in a series of thoughtful, groundbreaking national strategic documents, the best the Kerry team can come up with is that the United States should implement the 9/11 Commission recommendations. This tells me is that they either have no ideas of their own to offer, or they are so afraid to be pinned down they seek specificity by proxy. Kerry compounded this impression when he stated that the commission should stay on for an additional 18 months, issuing semi-annual reports on the implementation of their suggestions. His team thinks this would be an effective way to “bird dog the bureaucracy,” essentially putting national security reform on autopilot. Ignoring the fact that the commission has no oversight function and could easily be ignored by both the executive and Congress, wouldn’t a real leader say that he would evaluate the commission’s report, that he would seek to implement suggestions that he thought had merit, and that he would hold his own bureaucracy responsible for making the necessary reforms? Surely he would–and George Bush already has.
Take also nuclear nonproliferation. Many speakers at the convention have discussed its importance, and the platform accuses the president of ignoring the issue. The Democrats offer a series of proposals, each of which hinges on getting the interested parties around a table and hammering out an agreement. This was the approach the Clinton administration took with North Korea, and which facilitated Pyongyang’s successful development of nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Democrats refuse to give the president credit for the innovative and much more practical achievements in non- and counter-proliferation of the past few years. The centerpiece is the multinational Proliferation Security Initiative, which in one year has attracted sixty signatory nations, and the list is growing. The administration has also taken a hard line with North Korea, prompted renewed international inspections in Iran, and guaranteed that Iraq will not pose a proliferation threat in the future. Libya was persuaded to forsake its nuclear ambitions, and the US broke up the Pakistani nuclear black market of Abdul Qadeer Khan. The Democrats can keep saying that nothing has been accomplished but that just tells me that they have not been following the issue very closely.
Most astonishing, Kerry has for the most part adopted the Bush administration’s policy on Iraq. This is the focus of left-wing anger, and the platform is extremely critical of the president’s decision to go to war. Nevertheless, there is little in the Democratic proposal that differs in kind from what the United States is already pursuing. For example, Kerry would phase out U.S. troops as the Iraqis become better able to maintain their own security. He would bring in the international community. He would help rebuild infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector. These are all aspects of current policy. The primary policy difference is that Kerry would impose an international high commissioner to serve as an overlord during Iraq’s democratization process, usurping an unspecified amount of Iraqi sovereignty during this critical formative time. One supposes that this is the usual liberal paternalism at work, but in very practical terms the United States has learned that the Iraqi people are determined to chart their own course, write their own constitution, and hold their own elections. The last thing they need is a U.N.-sponsored viceroy.
One usually expects the challenger in an election to have more new ideas and innovative proposals than the incumbent, but at least in the national-security realm, the Kerry team seems to be stuck in the 1990s. They seem to believe that platitudes and triangulation can be substitutes for policies and action. Nothing I have seen or heard from the convention convinces me that the Democrats are intellectually prepared to take on a leadership role in the post-9/11 world. They really should try harder.