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Memo to Kerry: On National Security, Outflank Bush to the Right (and Keep Your Integrity, to Boot)
Published on Friday, September 10, 2004 by
Memo to Kerry: On National Security, Outflank Bush to the Right (and Keep Your Integrity, to Boot)
by David Michael Green

Earlier this week it was reported that the grandees of the Democratic Party advised John Kerry to steer his campaign away from national security and on to the supposedly friendlier terrain of domestic issues.

Although Kerry should certainly be using Bush's own record to hammer him mercilessly over jobs, deficits, healthcare and the environment, trying to run away from defense issues is a spectacularly bad idea, a notion which Kerry fortunately seems to have grasped.

To the contrary, Kerry should borrow from practitioners of the martial arts and let the force of Bush's parry become a self-defeating weapon used against him. Indeed, if Kerry is smart, he can actually prevail in a fight over security, turning apparent disadvantage into advantage. Regardless of how skillfully he winds up doing so, he will have to address this issue whether he wants to or not. But for at least five very good reasons, Kerry must and should attack on this front.

This is true, first and above all, because he has no choice. Anyone not fortunate enough to have been in a coma during the GOP convention knows that Bush is staking the entire election on an appeal to public fears of foreign threat. And, of course, he has to. What else is he going to do, talk about his record creating jobs? Or the virtues of handing our children a crushing deficit to pay off so that we can party today? The civil liberties he has demolished? His healthcare or environmental achievements?

To a very large extent this campaign will be about security, because Bush needs it to be and because a compliant (when not choreographed) media will amplify his jabs in this direction. This leaves Kerry two simple choices: respond or lose.

Second, security has become a Republican advantage only because Democrats have let it. Bush's record on this issue is actually beyond abysmal once one scratches only slightly below the surface. When it comes to protecting Americans, he is, as Texans like to say, all hat and no cattle.

The following are plain facts which indisputably add up to an America less safe under Bush, not more: The Bush administration was warned about the urgent threat of al Qaeda terrorism during its transition briefings, and did not even convene an initial meeting on this issue until eight months into his presidency. Bush was likewise warned in August 2001 of a major impending al Qaeda attack and did nothing (apart from take a month-long vacation). He promised to get Osama bin Laden, and had apparent opportunities to do so in Afghanistan, but instead pulled forces away to invade Iraq. This latter adventure has created more terrorists, not less. It has also bogged down half of America's land forces in a war with no end in sight, rendering them unavailable should a real emergency develop elsewhere. The administration's ham-fisted diplomacy has turned allies into strangers, leaving America alone to fight its enemies. And, at home, Bush has failed to adequately fund either first-responders or security measures to protect vulnerable domestic sites like ports and nuclear and chemical plants.

These are just the highlights - this list could go on ad nauseam, and it is, in fact, quite sickening. But it also represents an opportunity for Kerry to win this election. Kerry should outflank Bush to the right, calling for tougher prosecution of the fight against al Qaeda, beefed-up domestic security, and promising to be a president who reports for duty, now as always.

Americans are nervous about national security, and partly for good reason. Al Qaeda has shown its intent and its capability, and it is not a pretty picture. Maslow was right, meanwhile, about the hierarchy of human needs, wherein he located physiological and safety needs at the base of his pyramid. It doesn't matter whether people are uneasy about even their job or their healthcare plan, let alone affirmative action or gay marriage. If they are fearful of the Huns massing at the gates, they will be looking first and last for protection of their physical security. For too long, national defense has been a Republican issue. In 2004, however, Bush has handed Kerry an opening to make a persuasive argument that he can keep them safer. Kerry can and must grasp that opportunity.

The third reason for him to take this fight to Bush flows directly from the second. People are frightened, and they're looking for a leader with the toughness to attack those who would attack us first. It's pretty hard to demonstrate such martial bona fides as a legislator, let alone a liberal senator from Massachusetts. But a presidential candidate can show his mettle in the (increasingly) brutal scrum of American campaign battles. If John Kerry can't evidence to the electorate his ability to throw a punch against George W. Bush, there's no reason to expect they would entrust him with their security in a world which includes the likes of al Qaeda.

Out-toughing Republicans on security issues presents a fourth advantage, as well, which is that Democrats can begin to shake their reputation for wimpiness, which will otherwise continue to hobble them in any given American election.

How they acquired such a reputation is really not such a mystery. Reagan employed the most fearsome military machine in human history to liberate Grenada from those famously tough Cuban engineers (though in polite society, we don't mention that the Lebanese were returning the favor at the same time). Then ol' Poppy Bush really took it to the Grand Armee of Panama, while crushing Iraq in war of 100 hours and about as many American casualties. Not to be outdone, his kid has made a real hash of it in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Let's face it, these were manly men - warrior's warriors - showing that no Grenadian dictator or Leban... (well, never mind that one) ...was going to push around the world's only superpower. Compare them to those fey Democrats and it's no wonder Americans trust Republicans with their security. The only wars Democrats could ever manage to fight were World War I, World War II, the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam (not to mention the Cuban Missile Crisis).

In short, believing that the Republicans are the party of national security makes about as much sense as believing they are the party of fiscal discipline. Oh, um - oops! - Americans do actually believe that! Voters need to be reminded of this history, and the Party needs to burnish its credentials on security. Fortunately, since there is a legitimate need for defense, and since Bush is failing utterly to meet it, Democrats can accomplish this without becoming jingoistic hypocrites in the process.

Finally, telling the truth about national security is nothing less than a public service, and one which will also ultimately benefit progressive causes and candidates. The most horrifying, Orwellian fact to emerge from the insane debacle of the Iraq invasion was the fact that some 70 percent of Americans came to believe that Saddam Hussein had been a party to 9/11.

This, of course, was precisely what the Bush administration intended, and the figure, not coincidentally, about matches the level of support for the war at the time it commenced. Though some of the public is now presumably a bit wiser for the experience (perhaps Lincoln was right about fooling the people), the frightening conclusion, thirty years after the lessons of Vietnam, is that a body politic this unsophisticated about issues of great national urgency will always be a friend to reactionary politics.

For all these reasons, Kerry should not shy away from a fight on security issues, but should rather embrace one with great gusto. If he doesn't do so, he might as well give the millions in his campaign treasury to the Europeans or the Chinese. His campaign won't be needing the money - it will have already lost. But if there is a second Bush term those countries will require all the help they can get to balance against the unchained rogue elephant trampling about the planet.

The author is assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York, e-mail address:


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