White House Rivals Running on Empty

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc .org.

As the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination has shifted to New Hampshire, those still in the race have at least one thing in common: Each candidate argues that, in his own way, he is equipped to challenge President Bush on the vital issue of national security.

Yet with only modest exceptions, all of them are closer to Bush than they are to any substantively different way of looking at the security issues facing the United States.

From none of the candidates have we heard anything approaching a strikingly new vision of how the United States should think about national security in a post-Cold War era marked by terrorism. And that’s not because no such vision is conceivable. Rather, it’s because the major Democrats -- like a herd of dairy cows trundling across a pasture -- have unthinkingly fallen in behind the tinkling bell of establishment assumptions about the world and how the United States should deal with it.


Consider the defense budget. The Democrats express a variety of views on the details of the Bush administration’s $87-billion supplemental spending plan for Iraq, and on the wisdom of particular expenditures. But none of the frontrunners argues that the United States spends too much on defense -- even though no other nation sees any reason to spend even a significant fraction of what the Pentagon consumes each year.

Similarly, the Democrats oppose the administration’s current effort to develop “mini-nukes”; they also support a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. But none of the major Democratic candidates espouses anything close to nuclear disarmament, not even as a goal.

All the candidates support arms control, respect for international law and the notion that the United States should do a better job working with the international community. Nominally, at least, Bush says most of those things too, though he and the Democratic hopefuls obviously mean something different in specific situations. But how would anyone but the experts know?

Even former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who owed his early popularity to his opposition to the Iraq war, believes that nuclear weapons “are a fact of life” and that the American response to any use of weapons of mass destruction should be “overwhelming and devastating.” Effective missile defenses would be an important part of his national security strategy, he has said. Dean even embraces the principle of preemptive war in response to an imminent threat to the United States, or to prevent genocide.

Dean also promises to spend even more on homeland security, intelligence and special operations to fight the war on terrorism. And he opposes U.S. troops serving under a U.N. command.

Among the frontrunners, only Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, frankly, has taken anything close to a unique stance on any significant national security issue. He says we need “to ask the wealthiest people in our country to bear some of the burden” of increased spending for the the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kerry’s not calling for a draft, nothing as radical as that. But he is pointing out that middle-class Americans carry the greatest burden, both in taxes and in providing men and women for the armed forces, and he is suggesting something should be done about it.

With so little argument on the broad principles, it’s no wonder Bush feels he owns the national security debate, especially at a time when America is “at war.”

And to me, that is precisely where the Democratic candidates for president, including Dean, have failed: They have not challenged the central premise of the Bush doctrine on national security -- the endlessly repeated assertion that the United States is “at war.”

Initially, the “war on terrorism” was a figure of speech -- like the “war on poverty” and the “war on drugs.” To the extent that the “war on terrorism” has become more than that, it’s because the Bush administration has elected to initiate military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and other countries of Southeast Asia, the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus and elsewhere.

If the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon can be likened to Pearl Harbor, there has been nothing to match the subsequent wholesale advances of Japanese forces across Asia. And there has been no mobilization of American society -- except for how the Bush administration allowed Al Qaeda’s puny army to keep the American public spooked and worried about the future.

The administration created a Department of Homeland Security and made homeland defense a growth industry. But Americans need to seriously consider whether the long-term threat to our civil liberties is justified by the protections we may (or may not) be afforded against terrorist attacks. Reasonable people could argue for different strategies. There are alternatives that might be equally effective in reducing threats but less alarming to the public, less divisive among our allies, less go-it-alone, less in-your-face. Subtler strategies are possible. Borrowing a page from stealth technology, for instance, the United States could lower its profile as a target even as it strikes at the heart of specific terrorist groups. There’s nothing soft or dovish about the punch of a Stealth B-2 bomber; it’s just harder to strike back at.

Just because the administration chose to color code national anxiety does not mean it was necessary to do so. The anxiety may be an artifact of the color-coding.

But there’s no trace of such thinking among the Democrats. Their position papers are compendiums of proposals for such things as inspecting more container ships entering U.S. ports and improving security at nuclear power sites. Even the Nation magazine has declared that chemical plants in America are inadequately safeguarded against terrorism. Bush opposed minimum standards, the Nation declares, “after the oil and chemical lobby mobilized.” The Nation, of course, wants people to think that the corporate-Republican Party relationship is the culprit. But its underlying message is that container ships or nuclear power plants or chemical plants are indeed threatened and poorly secured; that is, that the threat of terrorism is imminent and severe.

These arguments are merely backhanded confirmations of the existence of war, ultimately validating the administration’s uber-policies. Arguments Dean, Kerry and others make about “fixing” homeland security or the intelligence community, or “spending” more on special operations, ultimately fall into the same trap: The administration is faulted for not doing more, but the critics tacitly concede that more is what needs to be done.

“Weapons of mass destruction pose one of the critical challenges to the security of the United States and our allies and friends,” Dean says on the stump. But do they? Bush and company get a virtual blank check when it comes to any problem associated with a “threat” of weapons of mass destruction, but after Iraq, one would think that the public (and the Democrats) would be more probing about the exact nature of the threat, and about what’s really new here.

In point of fact, around the world, we seem to be seeing more Libyas getting rid of weapons of mass destruction than North Koreas working to develop them.

On Iraq, as Dean says, “we can’t just cut and run.” Dean and the Democrats call for more international troops, U.N. involvement, and an equitable reconstruction policy. Belatedly, this is what the Bush administration is embracing. As for refocusing and reinvigorating efforts to go after Osama bin Laden, though the administration is loathe to admit publicly that the Iraq war was a diversion from that effort, even now they are refocusing and reinvigorating the hunt for Bin Laden.

Kerry and others argue that the administration has made the military weaker by overextending it, and this may be true. But weakness is relative here, and if we are indeed fighting a war, the military is going to be stressed. “As commander in chief of the U.S. military, I will never hesitate to send troops anywhere in the world to defend the U.S.,” Dean says. He might as well be Bush if this is what he really thinks.

In the end, it comes down to the Democratic Party assertion that it could run the same war and execute many of the same policies more competently. “Me too” didn’t work for Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. And Franklin D. Roosevelt argued successfully during World War II election campaigns that it was unwise “to change horses in midstream.”

Today, Democrats need to ask themselves: If we are in fact “at war” and facing such high stakes, why would the American public want to risk changing the White House leadership now?

Seeking a penetrating answer to that question might be good politics. It would certainly be a public service.