Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2003 / 29 Elul, 5763

Peter Beinart

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Dress up the Dem Party in whatever uniform you want, it still doesn't have a strategy for the defining challenge of our time | A week into his presidential bid, Wesley Clark looks less like the Democrats' solution than another symptom of their basic problem. That problem is that much of the Democratic base still doesn't take national security seriously. Sure, Democrats know that most Americans don't trust the party to keep them safe. But they deny that this distrust has anything to do with prevailing Democratic ideology. The party, they reassure themselves, merely needs a tougher image.

And so Democrats keep trying to find new, ever more Rambo-like personas to proclaim essentially the same message. First, there was John Kerry, whose Vietnam heroism supposedly inoculated him against GOP attacks, his incoherent Iraq position notwithstanding. Now, there is General Clark. Maybe Clark does indeed have a proactive, coherent national security message. But, with his Kerry-esque, have-it-both-ways position on Iraq, he certainly hasn't articulated that message on the stump. And many of the Democrats who cheered Clark's entrance into the race don't particularly care; for them, Clark's resumé is the message. Once again, the Democrats are trying to solve an ideological problem with a biographical solution. It didn't work for decorated World War II flying ace George McGovern; it didn't work for Vietnam triple-amputee Max Cleland. And it won't work next fall. The voters--shocking as it may seem-- actually care what the parties believe.

In fact, at the very moment Democrats are swooning over Clark, the party's views on Iraq are growing even more confused. Throughout the summer, Democrats rightly slammed the Bush administration for minimizing the difficulty of rebuilding Iraq. "It's been hide the ball every step of the way," fumed Senator Kent Conrad in July. "They've consistently understated the cost by a factor of several-fold." Two weeks later, Office of Management and Budget chief Joshua Bolten's refusal to estimate the costs of occupation led Senator Joseph Biden to ask, "When are you guys starting [sic] to be honest with us?"

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Biden got his answer on September 7. In his speech that night, President Bush did what Democrats had been demanding: He abandoned the fiction that Iraq could be rebuilt on the cheap. His $87 billion request even included new money for Afghanistan, where Democrats had hammered his insufficient commitment to nation-building.

You'd think Democrats would have applauded the president's conversion, perhaps even claimed credit for it. Instead, leading Democrats responded to Bush's U-turn with one of their own. With the polls showing that a majority of Americans, and a huge majority of Democrats, don't want to spend more money on Iraq, prominent Democrats decided Bush was too committed to nation-building. Almost overnight, it was Democrats who wanted to reconstruct Iraq on the cheap.

Democrats support the $51 billion Bush has requested for Iraqi military operations. But they want him to separate that from the roughly $20 billion he has requested for rebuilding Iraq's hospitals, electrical grid, and police. Ask Democrats whether they support that latter request, and they give three responses, each more dishonest and opportunistic than the last.

The first response is that the Bush administration should be spending the money at home. As John Kerry said at the September 9 Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) debate, "If we can open firehouses in Baghdad, we can keep them open in the United States of America." Yes, if we repealed the tax cuts, perhaps we could. But that's not going to happen, so, in the real world, Democrats have to decide whether to support large sums for Iraqi nation-building, even though their constituents won't get the domestic spending they vastly prefer. At the end of the day, Kerry will probably vote yes. But his debate answer pandered to an audience that wanted to hear him say no.

The second response is that Democrats can't evaluate Bush's request without more information. At the CBC debate, John Edwards said he wouldn't vote yes "without the president telling us how much this is going to cost over the long term, how long we're going to be there, and who is going to share the cost with us." But this isn't a position; it's a dodge. We already know who is going to share the cost with us: almost nobody. Estimates suggest the Bush administration will receive roughly 10 percent of the international aid it wants for Iraq. That's awful--and at least partly the Bushies' fault. But, if anything, it's reason for Democrats--if they're serious about succeeding in Iraq--to demand more than $20 billion in U.S. aid. Edwards also wants to know "how much this is going to cost over the long term" and "how long we're going to be there." Those questions can't be fully answered, but, even if they could--House Democrats recently estimated the Iraq occupation would cost roughly $300-$400 billion over ten years--what difference would it make? Edwards has all the information he needs to make a decision on Bush's budget request right now. Liberal internationalism says he should vote yes; the Democratic base says he should vote no. And his demand for plans, estimates, and timetables is a device to avoid choosing between the two.

The third dodge is to equate reconstructing Iraq with lining Dick Cheney's pockets. "I will not support a dime to protect the profits of Halliburton in Iraq," proclaimed Bob Graham at the CBC debate. But, for better or worse, rebuilding Iraq and securing Halliburton's profits are now intimately connected, and it is not exactly a sign of foreign policy seriousness to propose abandoning the former in order to prevent the latter.

These three nonresponses to Bush's budget request expose the shallowness of what passes for Democratic national security doctrine. If Democrats had a distinct post-September 11, 2001, vision, it was partly that the war on terrorism required a Marshall Plan as well as a Truman Doctrine; we needed to build schools in the Muslim world, not just crack skulls. Yet, now, with the Bush administration finally recognizing that defeating terrorism requires making sure Iraqis have electricity and clean water, the Democratic presidential candidates are looking for any excuse to avoid saying yes. Pandering to public isolationism may make short-term political sense, but, in the long-term, it will simply confirm what many Americans already believe: that you can dress up the Democratic Party in whatever uniform you want, it still doesn't have a strategy for the defining challenge of our time.

Peter Beinart is editor of The New Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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