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What we need to hear

Candidates in both parties need to define the amorphous war on terror -- and how they'd pay for it.

November 11, 2007

Unpatriotic, un-American, defeatist, delusional. These are some of the epithets that make it scary for politicians to discuss one of the most vital issues of the 2008 presidential campaign: Is the United States, six years after 9/11, suffering from strategic overreach? Are the U.S. military, diplomatic corps and Treasury overextended? And if so, what should we do about it?

Jimmy Carter's angst and Ronald Reagan's optimism instruct us that it's bad politics to express doubts about America's role in the world and good politics to proclaim that America's role is to shoulder the big problems other nations shirk. Nevertheless, the next occupant of the Oval Office will likely inherit two wars, a huge deficit, an unbowed Al Qaeda and a world deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions and abilities. Will he or she need to choose U.S. involvements more wisely, marshaling resources for only the most important challenges?

The American left says yes, but Democratic candidates are loath to say so because it could imply that they're weak on national security and invite Republican attacks. The American right believes that Al Qaeda poses an existential threat, and so full-scale war against radical Islamic fundamentalism is the only option. But Republican candidates are loath to go into detail because "victory at any cost" could be a turnoff to some voters when they're told the real costs of the strategy: expanding the military, sharply increasing defense spending and preparing for possible conflicts with Iran and operations inside the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The deceptive politics of the Iraq invasion have made it difficult to have an honest debate about how much national security we'd like to have, how much we'd like to pay for and what we might be forced to punt. Many Democrats (and some Republicans) believe that the Bush administration has been arrogant and overambitious in its attempts to oust hostile regimes and in the president's lofty but empty pledge to oppose tyranny everywhere and bring democracy to the Middle East. But, for fear of being branded appeasers or retreaters, none of the candidates are saying where and how they would opt not to use American power. If we now overreach, what would they not attempt to do, which global problems do they not consider vital to core U.S. interests, and where should the United States stay on the sidelines?

Voters can infer these limits by omission. No candidate has advocated sending U.S. troops to stop the genocide in Darfur, for example, and no candidate has advocated the politically suicidal position that the killing in Congo, horrific though it is, is an African problem and the United States has too many other commitments to go in and stop it (although it's increasingly clear that this is the de facto position of the Bush administration). Nor have Democratic candidates set any other foreign policy priorities that would limit the use of American money or power in "optional" conflicts so as to focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or other national security goals. If diplomacy fails, is war to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons optional, or a requirement for U.S. national security?

So far, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) haven't articulated a fundamental challenge to President Bush's worldview. If Democrats don't believe in a "global war on terror," then what kind of struggle should we be waging? Can Al Qaeda be wiped out, or must it be contained, and if so, what would such a situation look like? On their side, the Republican front-runners seem to be implying that the U.S. should accept no limits, financial or military, in the battle to stop Islamist terror. But praising the sacrifice of U.S. troops is not the same thing as telling voters what sacrifices these policies will require of us. What percentage of gross national product should we devote to waging the battle they envision? And will they raise taxes or borrow money to pay for it?

The answers from both parties -- if truthful -- will be unpleasant. Still, as the bitter divisions over the Iraq war have shown, any national security strategy not presented honestly in advance to the American people will inevitably fail, deepening our domestic rifts. And that could be more dangerous than any foreign foe.

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