Democratic Plan to Beef Up U.S. Security Lacks Specifics

Times Staff Writer

Sharpening their election-year message, leading Democrats on Wednesday released a plan that promised to strengthen America's security but offered few details about how they would achieve their sweeping goals.

On Iraq, the plan -- echoing language recently approved by Congress -- said Democrats would "ensure 2006 is a year of significant transition ... with Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country."

But it established no timetables, or targets, for reducing the U.S. military commitment there.

The Democrats also pledged to rebuild the military, "eliminate" terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, improve domestic security, free America from reliance on foreign oil by 2020 and pressure Iraq's feuding political factions to reach consensus on a national unity government.

The agenda "will take America in a new direction, one that is tough and smart," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.

The plan, dubbed Real Security, is part of a Democratic effort to clarify the party's message for voters before the November midterm elections by releasing a series of policy statements. Democrats previously issued a lobbying reform plan.

By focusing on national security policies before detailing their ideas on traditional party priorities such as healthcare or education, the Democrats signaled their desire to neutralize an issue that had been President Bush's core political strength since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But the Democratic plan provoked a coordinated flurry of counterattacks from leading Republicans.

In statements and interviews, GOP officials charged that Democrats had belied their tough talk by challenging Bush on some national security issues, including his approval of a domestic surveillance program that operates without obtaining court warrants.

"Their behavior has been totally inconsistent with what they're now promising they're going to do," Vice President Dick Cheney said in a radio interview.

The Democratic plan was released at a rally attended by dozens of the party's most prominent figures. Amplifying an increasing Democratic campaign theme, a series of speakers accused Bush of mismanaging the nation's defense and foreign policies.

"I have never seen such rank incompetence as we are seeing from the Bush administration," said Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Clinton.

The Democratic blueprint was released as Bush continued a heightened effort to shore up public support for his Iraqi policy.

Speaking at a Washington gathering sponsored by the Freedom House, a nonpartisan group that promotes democracy, Bush said the sectarian violence in Iraq was not the result of the U.S. invasion, but "is the legacy of Saddam Hussein."

The former Iraqi dictator, Bush argued, "exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power" and created the animosities fueling the bloodshed between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Though Democrats were spirited in their denunciations of Bush's record on national security, they offered limited insights into the actual policies they would pursue if returned to power.

The party document said Democrats would double the size of the military's special forces, pass legislation improving veterans' medical care and press to screen all cargo bound for the United States "in ships or airplanes at the point of origin."

On many other fronts, though, the Democratic plan emphasized aspiration over direction.

For instance, party leaders said they would make "the needed investments in equipment and manpower so that we can project power to protect America wherever and whenever necessary." But aides said the proposal did not commit Democrats to any specific increase in defense spending.

Along with its vow to eliminate Bin Laden, the plan said Democrats would "destroy terrorist networks like Al Qaeda, finish the job in Afghanistan and end the threat posed by the Taliban." But other than adding more special forces and improving America's intelligence capacity, the document offered no hints of what strategies the party might employ toward those ends.

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