The Democrats this fall have figured out that they can actually talk about national security. Faced with a failing Bush policy in Iraq, they have seized the baton and are piling on. This is as it should be in an election campaign. Policy, not sleaze, is fair game in an election year.
The Democrats are taking a hit, though, for not having a coherent, consistent or detailed message on Iraq, on terrorism or on national security policy more broadly. To some extent this is a bum rap. A party in the minority never has one spokesperson or one point of view on any issue. Even in power, Republicans are divided on issues like immigration and abortion. To blame a leaderless party for not having one leader and one view makes no sense.
In the case of Iraq, Democrats can make the case that they are at least thinking about the possible options for dealing with a failed policy. This is more than one can say for the administration, which has been "staying the course", as that course dwindles into failure. There are no new administration ideas for Iraq, aside from staying there, in force, and achieving the "victory" the president says is so necessary, the "win" he says we are already achieving.
The most recent packaging on this effort-tactical flexibility and change as conditions change-is unpersuasive. General Casey cannot credibly both set a loose timetable for the transfer of security responsibilities (12 to 18 months), and suggest the need for increased U.S. troops right now. The ghost of Vietnam hovers over that contradictory message. We would be filling the newly discovered tunnel (the one with the light at the end) with more American troops, blocking the view.
The diagnosis of this failed policy is, by now, transparently obvious, and largely agreed to by most Democrats. By invading Iraq, the president both took his eye off the main event in the War on Terror-the pursuit of Al Qaeda-and stimulated the growth and training of more terrorists in Iraq. The invasion was ill advised and incompetently executed, as well, with no plans for security, reconstruction or governance in the occupied country. The accumulated mistakes have led to an Iraqi populace that, by an overwhelming majority, would like us to leave, regardless of the internal consequences.
We no longer control events in Iraq, nor does Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Events are in the hands of the street, the militias, the insurgents and the Iraqi people, and we no longer know the outcome with any certainty. This reality makes any timetable unrealistic.
The Democrats are having the kind of debate they and the administration should have had before the war began. Still, the question remains: are they leading a 2002 debate in 2006? Also, are the Democrats' proposals achievable? Have they been overtaken by events?
The Senate and House leadership, including Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), call for a phased redeployment of U.S. forces, beginning this year. That may be achievable, but is unlikely. Even less likely is the disarming of the militias, the political compromise-with power and resource sharing-they have proposed. Were that to happen, it would result from internal Iraqi decisions, not American direction. Others (Sen. Joe Biden) would divide up Iraq into its ethnic and religious bits. Could happen, but, again, not as a result of U.S. policy but a rather messy process of movement and murder on the ground. Still others (the Democratic Leadership Council and Sen. Lieberman) would "stay the course" with the president, increase our presence and ensure victory through a more competent management of the war.
The rubber will hit the road if the Democrats take back one or both houses of Congress on November 7. The task of governing, even partially, from the Congress, however, is challenging. It will be doubly so, unless the party's leadership begins to define concrete, coherent ways of implementing their rhetoric once in office.
Given a more commanding presence in Congress, the Democrats will be expected to present more coherent and feasible proposals. Implementing Democratic thinking on Iraq (and on the large question of the future direction for U.S. national security) will prove harder than the critique and alternatives proposed in the campaign. The Democrats have a number of key questions to answer.
Start with Iraq. Will Democrats seek to legislate a withdrawal? Probably not. Will they act on the funding for the war as a way of forcing the withdrawal? Again, probably not. The safest road is likely to be that of hearings and investigations, but the policy might not be changed much, at least not as a result of the changed conditions in Washington, DC.
More broadly, how do the Democrats propose to shape a different national security policy that would deal with the world in a different and more hopeful way and avoid future Iraqs? Do they all agree with the "Six for ‘06" statement of the House Democratic leadership that we need to "rebuild a state-of-the-art military capable of projecting power wherever necessary."
There are no details on what a "rebuilt" military would look like and, once out of Iraq, it is not clear that such a rebuilding is needed. Thanks in part to the last ten years of defense planning, the military is pretty capable, except, of course, in fighting insurgents.
Following that logic, however, is dangerous. Does rebuilding mean that the Democrats are prepared to have a military that can (or should) "project power wherever necessary", as the Six for '06 document proposes? Have the Democrats defined what force projections are "necessary?" Is there a limit to such deployments and, if so, what defines that limit? If there are no limits, do Democrats want to expand the military to fit an interventionist policy?
Prominent proposals urge precisely that. Senator Kerry's idea of adding 40,000 to the Army and doubling the size of the Special Forces has been echoed by other voices in the party. The origins of this proposal seem to be the stresses the forces are experiencing as they rotate through Iraq. Does this mean Democrats are prepared to continue to rotate large forces through Iraq? Doubtful. Does it mean Democrats support a large force doing other Iraq-size missions, and if so, where?
If stress is the problem, withdrawal-timely, phased or otherwise-from Iraq is the solution. If persistent, global intervention on a large scale is the problem, the Democrats have some explaining to do: where would large-scale military interventions occur? Pakistan? Syria? Iran?
If the problem is chasing Al Qaeda, is the military manpower required for this mission such that existing forces, once home and suitably trained, could not carry it out? How many countries are the likely targets of such intervention-Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia? Will these other countries welcome such an intrusion, especially in the wake of the Iraq disaster?
There is no analysis in these proposals of whether the military is the right tool for counter-terrorist operations, let alone other national security missions such as shoring up failed states or preventing proliferation. Nor is there a coherent Democratic proposal for how we might best combine the other tools of statecraft to achieve our purposes, without having first recourse to the military-our diplomacy, foreign assistance, financial tools, or our intelligence.
The critique of the administration's Iraq policy, combined with events on the ground, may be enough to hand Democrats at least the House of Representatives. What the Democrats will effectively achieve with that victory remains to be seen and may only come into focus in '08.
Gordon Adams is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, where he is writing a book on national security resources.