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Democrats' Narrow Vision

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, April 3, 2006

You can look at the Democrats' national security plan, released last week, as simply a political shield, akin to the upgraded body armor they promise for U.S. troops.

The party remains traumatized by the failure of biography to protect Vietnam veterans Max Cleland and John Kerry from charges of being soft on security.

So "Real Security" -- with its red, white and blue cover, its poll-tested phrases (policies that are "both tough and smart") printed in English and Spanish -- is an amulet for 2006 candidates: You see? We have a plan. We Democrats will buy more weaponry than the Bush administration, sign up more troops, give more to veterans, inspect more shipping containers.

But you can also look at the security plan as the Democrats say it is intended: as a serious strategy intended to show that the opposition party is ready to govern. Under that lens, it is a more interesting document.

The first thing you might notice is that the Democrats implicitly reject almost everything the Bush administration says about how Sept. 11 changed the world, or our perception of it.

President Bush believes that the United States "is in the early years of a long struggle," according to his own national security strategy released last month, against "a new totalitarian ideology." To combat radical Islamist terrorism, he says, the United States must first and foremost offer better values, promoting democracy and opposing tyranny. It must be ready to take the fight to the enemy, including with preemptive action, because the nation can never be made safe only by guarding the homeland. And it must seek to ease the poverty that breeds hopelessness through "dramatically expanded" development aid and an emphasis on free markets and trade.

An opposition party could accept the goals but decry the administration's failure to reach them: the broken alliances, the screw-ups in Iraq, the lack of readiness illustrated by the pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina, the gulf between the rhetoric of human dignity and the record of torture and infringed liberty.

The Democrats do indeed attack the failures and promise an end to incompetence. But they also reveal a different world view, one that is far more cramped and inward-looking. While reassuring voters that they will keep "foreign interests" out of "our national security infrastructure" -- including "mass transit" -- the Democrats do not find space to mention democracy even once.

They promise to "destroy terrorist networks like al Qaeda," but there is no discussion of a broader threat, of a "global war" or a long Cold War-like struggle. They devote more space to homeland security than to anything else. There is no mention of preemptive action.

The document does promise, almost as an aside and without elaboration, to "lead international efforts to uphold and defend human rights" and to combat "the economic, social, and political conditions that allow extremism to thrive." But where Bush concluded from Sept. 11 that the acceptance of stable dictatorships in countries such as Egypt was ultimately self-defeating, Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democrats' leader in the Senate, told me that while "we of course acknowledge that democracy is our goal . . . we first have to have stability."

Certainly a respectable case can be made that there is no "global war" -- that the administration, whether from shock at the 2001 attacks or out of political cynicism, exaggerated the threat and distorted American priorities. There is an equally respectable argument that Bush's promise to end tyranny is dangerously romantic.

But then what is the vision? What does bring security? Bill Clinton and Al Gore, by the time they left office, had formed a view. The United States was the "indispensable nation," as Clinton said, that should lead international coalitions to combat transnational threats: not only failed states and terror but also genocide and ethnic cleansing, AIDS, human trafficking, climate change, and more.

The Democrats, led by Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), seem to have reverted to the it's-the-economy-stupid Clinton of 1992. A section of their plan focuses on alternative energy and conservation, for example, but the goal is only "to free America from dependence on foreign oil"; climate change isn't mentioned. Pandemics such as avian flu are to be combated by spending more on public health at home; the rest of the world doesn't figure in.

Throughout the plan, in fact, there is no discussion of values, of liberty or generosity, of free markets or foreign aid -- of any purpose for American leadership larger than self-protection. The pollsters may be satisfied, but John F. Kennedy would not recognize his party.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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