Wednesday, Aug. 27 at 1 p.m. ET

Election 2008: Democrats and National Security

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Rand Beers
President and Founder, National Security Network
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; 1:00 PM

National Security Network president and founder Rand Beers, who spent a decade on the National Security Council staff and was an adviser to the 2004 Kerry campaign, will be online live from the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Wednesday, Aug. 27 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss progressive defense policy and tonight's planned slate of national-security-themed speeches.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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Rand Beers: My name is Rand Beers, I'm the president of the Naitonal Security Network. Our objective is to help the public get objective, progressive, foreign policy ideas for the way ahead.

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Houston: What qualities or qualifications does a new president truly need to be "ready" to be commander in chief? Which of these qualities do you see in Barack Obama? I'm a swing voter. The current crowd has completely screwed it up. Help me get comfortable with Barack.

Rand Beers: First of all I think that the current crowd clearly has screwed it up, and that lies in the main point I want to make. You have to have judgment. You have to be open to ideas and suggestions from others, and you have to be able to communicate those ideas clearly to the public and to other countries around the world. If you're able to do that, you have an extraordianry ability to move forward. It's not just about talking, it's about listening.

The second thing I'd mention is that many of the problems in the world today can't be solved by the U.S. unilaterally. I think it's important for the next president to appreciate that these problems only will be dealt with if we can convince others to follow us or accept the good suggestions of others.

A couple of examples: There's no way climate change will be solved unilaterally by the U.S. Unless we can get agreement from other major economic powers like China to work with us, we can't solve it. Proliferation is another example -- we, Russia and China all have significant fissile materials.

Related to that is that there are a lot of other issues we have in bilateral and multilateral areas with other countries. We have to be careful that as we push one issue with a country, we are not undermining our ability to work with them on another issue. I think the best example of that would be our abrogation of the ballistic missile defense treaty and our deployment of such units to eastern europe, creating tension with Russia that undercuts our ability to work with the Russians in other areas, because it looks like we're walking away from a carefully negotiated treaty.

The next president has to understand that not all solutions involve the military -- although it's an important tool -- and we have to be open to using diplomacy and economic tools. All of that needs to be employed in international problems. Simply having the view that use of force will make others fall in line with us won't be successful. This administration's use of that approach has shown the failure of it.

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Bethesda, Md.: How do you think Democrats can best make a strong, comprehensive (i.e. not responding ad-hoc issue by issue, but crafting and selling a vision) foreign policy case for themselves this fall?

Rand Beers: I think in many ways, the vision has been put forward. The unfortunate thing is that it tends to be chopped up as it's reported to the American people, so I think it's important to come back. The first thing I'd say is that Democrats absolutely are convinced that we have to restore America's position in the world. The diminution of the U.S. ability to lead by this administration means that building coalitions to achieve results has been limited or undermined completely. So the first thing is to get back to a position where we can work with others.

I put that first because so many of the other things on the agenda are absolutely dependent on that. It involves talking to and listening to others, it means restoring our image as a democratic nation promoting democracy by example, it means returning to the Geneva Conventions, it means ending Guantanamo as a prison, either by returning the prisoners to their countries or finding other solutions. Those are just two big examples of what we need to be doing.

Iraq, which may not be the most important national security issue, is the one most centrally on the minds of Americans and citizens around the world. We need a responsible exit, we need to convey to Iraqis and their neighbors that it's our intention to exit responsibly and as quickly as possible, so that there is a clear understanding that we don't intend to be an occupying power, and that we recognize that Iraqis are responsible for their own solutions. That's another way of conveying nationally that we're here with a different policy -- but it's also the best solution for Iraq, and for us on a national security level. As long as we remkain in Iraq at current force levels, we're prevented from doing things in the future that might require the use of force. Right now we have little ability to operate internationally because we're so tied down there.

The next area is Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must stabilize Pakistan and help the transition to democracy there, and of course bin Laden is almost certainly headquartered in the tribal areas. That area is the area of greatest immediate peril to the United States. Al-Qaeda there is reconstituted and is again capable of attackin the U.S. The Taliban also is using that area as a sanctuary, and are the largest insurgent threat in Afghanistan. We'll need to work with the Pakistani government to deal with those threats.

Weve talked about the need for additional forces in Afghanistan, but by itself, the military cannot create stability in Afghanistan. They need to be spending more time training forces there, rather than carrying out misisons themselves. We also need to work wit hthe Afghan government to create institutions to govern effectively. And as in Iraq, we must find some kind of economic solution, and part of that is strengthening the legal economy, and part of it is diminishing the illegal opium poppy trade. That's a true slush fund for corruption and insurgency, used by the Taliban, drug lords and warlords.

All of those issues are related, and requires our ability to work with governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the international community. Terrorism is a global issue and requires a global solution. It's in the interests of all countries to reduce violent extremism.

Lemme end quickly with proliferation and climate change -- there's not unilateral solution for either of those problems, and we will not succeed if others aren't prepared to work with us. We have to get back to that.

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Arlington, Va.: A couple of the speakers at the convetion said something to the effect that the money we spend on oil goes to the terrorists; can you please how?

Rand Beers: The notion here is that if you look at the fact that oil revenue goes to the government of Iran, which supports Hezbollah; to Saudi Arabia and finds its way through private donors to individuals associated with al-Qaeda; and that other monies in those economies end up in the pockets of violent extremists; that's the basis for that. With respect for Iran, I think that's pretty true -- there's no question that Hezbollah is dependent on them and operates as a terrorist organization. With respect to the Saudis, they've made an effort to try to prevent money coming into the kingdom from ending up as "religious contributions" to religious extremists. It's not a completed process. And there are other nations in the Gulf region where money going into those countries trickles down, and that revenue creates a lot of disposable income that sometimes is donated to terrorists.

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Arlington, Va.: So, six months from now when things have cooled off and all of the posturing is over with, can we expect some kind of deal involving Russia unrecognizing the two Georgian districts, and Kosovo going back to being an autonomous part of Serbia?

Rand Beers: I think that it is unlikely that Kosovo is going to ever revert from its independent status, and I think that having said that, the likelihood of Abkahzia and South Ossetia reverting to Georgia is not a high prospect -- certainly not in six months. If that is to happen, it's going to take more time, and a fundamentally readjusted relationship with Russia. This administration has created the seeds of this particular crisis in its policy toward russia, which involves, as I said earlier, the placement of ballistic missile defence systems in Eastern Europe. That's further exacerbated by Sen. McCain's suggestion that we ought to through Russia out of the G8. Those things are scene in Moscow as direct challenges to Russia and its role in the world at a time Putin would like to think of itself as Russia's savior, restoring its status on the back of its energy income and networks. I think it will take time if there's to be changes to that part of the map.

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Lyme, Conn.: Some foreign policy experts say we only should become involved in military engagements when our own interests are immediately threatened, or for humanitarian reasons -- such as to prevent genocide -- when our involvement would be effective, and when we would have an exit strategy or oprtions for how to conclude the engagement, and considering the consequences of such engagement on our foreign policy as a whole. Do you have a general series of conditions for evaluating when it is proper for us to engage militarily?

Rand Beers: I think this is a pretty standard comment by a lot of people who have thought long and hard about this both before and since our engagement in Iraq. I'd start first and foremost with the effect of that engagement on our national interests, the direct effects on the safety and security of the U.S. That's the first point where the U.S. should be prepared to use force. The second consideration, about genocide and humanitarian considerations, is a very important point at which we should look hard and see whether we're prepared to move forward. In additon to the point about the clear exit strategy, I'd say we'd need the clear support of the American people, that we almost certainly should have friends and allies prepared to work with us in those situations, that we should have a clear idea of how we're going to proceed -- it's not sufficient to say we're going to put x number of soldiers into an area, we need to know what the plan is and how they'd be employed. That I think helps us get to your last point. Regarding a clear exit strategy -- even a threat to the United States's imminent being is justification for the president to consider force, but having said that, we should make sure we haven't ignored other instruments of power before employing force, unless the time span makes that impossible. In Iraq, there were options other than the use of force to ensure any weapons would not be used against the U.S. or our allies. It was not an imminent threat -- even the U.S. when challenged on that point achknowledges that. Even though a lot of Americans may have the impression the administration used words like those, I think they tried to be careful not to.

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Santa Fe, N.M.: President Bush has dumped the Non-Proliferation Treaty by advocating the development of advanced nuclear weapons, expanding our stockpile, and declaring a first-strike use of nuclear weapons apporpriate if he deems this to be the best response. What specific steps is the U.S. prepared to take (under a new, Democratic administration) to move towards truly mutual non-proliferation? (Up to this point, "non-proliferation" has meant "no one else may have nuclear weapons or the means to produce them.")

Rand Beers: I think that there are a number of elements in moving down the path you point out. I would point first and foremost to an article by former of Secretaries of State Kissinger and Schultz, former Sen. Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William Perry in the Wall Street Journal -- I believe from January 2007, in which they said the U.S. should honor the commitment to reduce nuclear weapons, with the goal eliminating them from the arsenal of all countries around the world. The closest to that we've every come were the SALT talks with the Soviet Union. That was first a cap and then a modest recution. There were chances for more reductions there, but it now will involve all the other nuclear powers. That I think allows all of us to have a much better ability to talk to those nations that are aspirational nuclear states, like Iran. I do think it's fair to say that the U.S. is going to have to convey to people in other countries that this is something we're willing to engage in, rather than just lecturing other states and telling them they can't have nuclear weapons.

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Reston, VA: Do you believe Georgia should be invited to join NATO?

Rand Beers: I think that in the long run, that's still an option that should be kept on the table, but in the current environment it would not be helpful in trying to resolve the Georgian-Russian crisis. While I wouldn't take it off the table, I wouldn't pursue it actively. I was encouraged that the NATO leaders at a recent summit declined to put that issue on the agenda. At that point that would have been an escalatory move that wouldn't get us out of the crisis. They have to be reasoned and prepared to enter into a dialogue. That doesn't mean you have to acquiesce to Russian, but we need to start by ending the fighting and getting Russia to their previous positions. We're going to have to climb out of that particular cauldron first.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: In a poll of Presidential qualities, John MCain sees his biggest increase in support over Barack Obama is when the quality is asked as to who the voters sees as better prepared to be Commander in Chief. How should Obama deal with this weakness?

Rand Beers: I think it is important for the American people to understand that bluster and heatened rhetoric are not solutions to interantional problems, just as use of force frequently is not. Sen. Obama should continue to convey this more reasoned approach, while at the same time not giving the impression that he's unwilling to use force when it's necessary. He has said, for instance, that he would be willing to go after bin Laden in Pakistan if their government wouldn't. I don't know any serious student of national security who would disagree with Obama on that. It's hard to think about peaceful solutions to these conflicts because they aren't as dramatic -- wars avoided are less known that wars engaged in. It leads to the idea that warriors are the best defenders of national security, when in fact people who make tough judgments without necessarily having to resort to the use of force in the long run solve more conflicts than people who who simply resort to the use of force as the first and always chosen solution.

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Raleigh, N.C.: There's been alot of talk about what our biggest national security threats are right now. My question is a bit different. What issue should the next president be preparing for? For instance, Clinton should have spent his time working more on non-state actors, especially Islamic fundamentalists; Bush Sr. should have spent more time managing the breakup of the artificial states in Eastern Europe, especially Yugoslavia; Reagan should have spent more time dealing with the impact of his era's massive trade and fiscal debts; etc. None of those things were crises during each president's term, but each president could have reduced his successor's challenges with proper action. I know this question is a matter of guesswork more than anything, but I'm still interested in the answer.

Rand Beers: I think that the elements are all in fact laid out there in public discussion, but let me repeat them. The next president is going to have to deal both with proliferation and climate change, the two most serious issues -- neither of which, one might say is about to happen, at least not without terrorists getting nukes -- and both will require serious work with others, and the longer we delay that work, the greater the risk of catastrophic failure. Clearly, still Islamic extremeism and bin Laden and terrorism haven't gone away -- some people have called it a global insurgency, which may have some utility in reminding people that force is not the only component in that kind of an issue. It's going to require others working together to diminish the fundraising and recruiting abilities of terrorists so that the groups become less and less significant and relavent to the day-to-day actions of countries. I see those three as significant. And quite honestly to go back to the point re: Reagan, the shape of the global economy clearly is changing and the U.S. isgoing to have to adapt to succeed in this changing world -- the rise of China and India and Russia and other emerging economies around the world. We need foresight to deal with this. It hasn't gotten any attention since the globalization riots in Seattle.

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Columbus, Ohio: As a recent veteran of the Iraq war who has seen the obvious success of the surge that Sen Obama opposed, I have very serious doubts about his judgement regarding national security. Protecting this country must be the highest duty of the President of the United States. Politics must be put aside in this regards. Radical Islamists seeking to force the world to submit to Islamic rule are a threat that cannot be stopped by withdrawing into "Fortress America" either. I cannot vote for Sen Obama in good conscience...not at all.

Rand Beers: Let me knock down a couple of things first -- I don't think anything Sen. Obama has suggested involves a withdrawal from Iraq into a "Fortress America." One of the very significant goals of drawing down in Iraq is dealing with extremism emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our force levels in Iraq reduce our flexibility. Secondly, the degree to whichthe military has been stretched I think also means we must reduce our force levels to rebuild America's military. The strain on our troops and their families is enormous. Their ability to operate effectively has been diminished. For those reasons, one could argue for a diminution of U.S. forces in Iraq. We have to be prepared to hand responsibilty off to the Iraqis and let them make mistakes. We'll never be in a position to where we would have 100 percent assurance they wouldn't make mistakes. And I would say that Iraqi security forces are a heck of a lot better today than they were two or three years ago. We didn't emphasize training those forces in the early days as we should have, and so it's taken a long time to bring them to the level where they are today.

With respect to the "obvious success of the surge," Sen. Obama has made clear that he feels that the forces we've committed in Iraq have performed to the highest expectations and have reduced violence in Iraq. He has argued publically that the precense of U.S. forces alone are not responsible for that reduction in violence -- the Awakening started six months before the surge, and that effort by Sunnis to organize themselves and fight al-Qaeda began before the surge was announced. That clearly has been a big contributor to the reduction in violence. Obama's second point is that Muqtada al-Sadr pulling out of the fight, in part as a result of the reduction in Sunni violence, is the second major reduction in it. The third major reduction -- and the most tragic element -- is that the high violence early in the war resulted in displacement of Sunni and Shia from mixed neighborhoods. Baghdad is now majority Shia, when it was majority Sunni before, and there are few mixed neighborhods left. Finally, lets give credit to the Iraqi security forces. They've gotten a lot better, and that's not tied directly to the surge.

The Surge has had a role in all of this, but it's not entirely credited. Also, the reconiciliation promised from this reduction of violence has taken much longer than promised.

I think we also have to ask whether we're safer than we were before the surge, and I think the answer is no -- Pakistan is worse, Afghanistan is worse, and al-Qaeda has gotten stronger. That is to in no way diminish the work done by U.S. troops during the surge in Iraq -- they have performed to the highest levels we've ocme to expect from the U.S. military. (I served as someone who was a Marine rifle company commander in Vietnam, so I'm not speaking as though I've never fought in a war.)

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Rand Beers: Thank you all who asked questions -- I hope I was able to help you think about the challenges our nation faces in the world today. They're essential to America's safety and security.

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