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White House Rivals Running on Empty

No candidate has offered a new vision of how to navigate in this era of terrorism.

January 25, 2004|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc .org.

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — 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.

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