The conventional wisdom holds that a majority of Americans believe that Republicans do a better job of protecting America than Democrats do. This assumption has changed significantly as the Bush administration’s war in Iraq descends further into chaos and violence, but most high-ranking Democratic officials continue to believe that a “muscular” approach to national security is their best bet for returning to power. But trying to beat the Republicans at their own game–fear-mongering in the service of ever higher military budgets–is a losing proposition.

A better approach for Democrats would be to set a date certain for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and then present a plan for investing the tens or hundreds of billions thus saved in non-military tools of security. A new security policy should be premised on the notion that every human being is precious, and that the government should endeavor to protect America and its allies from all threats to life, including terrorism, infectious diseases, natural disasters, environmental degradation, and entrenched poverty.

This broader notion of national security would obviously require choices to be made on how much to spend in each area, but at least the choices would be made from the right menu of budgetary options. It would also create a clear contrast with the Bush administration’s ongoing attachment to its failed doctrine of “preemption,” and its open-ended, “stay the course” strategy in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the Democrats’ “Real Security” plan, released yesterday, falls short of providing a sharp alternative to Republican policies. Whether one looks at the primary document, a 10-page brochure, or the 123 pages of back-up material, what emerges is not a plan, but a mixture of rhetoric and goals that is short on specifics and fails to set clear priorities. Its vagueness no doubt derives from the consensus nature of the document. The current Democratic Party is a fractured mosaic of factions with divergent positions on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to how best to address Iran’s nascent nuclear enrichment program. Coming up with a common platform that takes a clear stand on anything is no small task.

Given this reality, it is probably no surprise that the Democratic security strategy lacks an overarching, alternative vision that would distinguish it from the Bush doctrine of stressing “all terrorism, all the time.” The closest the Democratic leadership has come to articulating a real alternative are a few lines from Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s statement at the release of the “real security” plan, in which she notes that:

The world is changing and so are the threats we face. They range from an improvised explosive device to a nuclear weapon, from a threat as small as a virus to as big as Katrina, from a lone wolf terrorist to a rogue nation, from the weakness of energy independence to the fury of despair.

But the plan itself contains no attempt to build on this notion of a broader definition of security. From strengthening the military, to filling the gaps in homeland security, to “eliminating” Osama Bin Laden, both the tools suggested and the threats addressed appear to share the Bush framework that sees terrorism as the nation’s primary danger. Other security problems are discussed almost entirely in terms of their relationship to terrorism. To cite just one telling example, even the discussion of alternative energy policies is justified as a way to “eliminate reliance on oil from the Middle East and other unstable regions of the world.” There is no reference to changing energy policy as a way to address global climate change, which, left unchecked, has the potential to kill untold numbers of people while destroying the basic infrastructure that a modern society depends on to survive and thrive.

In addition to this lack of vision, the central failure of the program is its inability to endorse a clear plan for getting out of Iraq. Take point one, for example: “we will [e]nsure 2006 is a year of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty, with the Iraqis assuming primary responsibility for securing and governing their country and with the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces.” Not only is this statement painfully close to what the Bush administration has been saying, but it is inherently illogical. If the Democrats take control of the House and/or Senate in the November elections, the new Congress won’t take office until January 2007. Ergo, the Democrats will retain their minority status throughout 2006, with little ability to shape Iraq policy. Their one success in this area, a bipartisan piece of legislation that called on President George W. Bush to present a concrete plan for victory in Iraq that would include an accelerated “transition to full Iraqi sovereignty,” is more symbolic than real. It has had little or no effect on the administration’s actual policy in Iraq.

The Democrats can’t control events, but they can raise issues for public debate. The document’s commitments to promote “regional diplomacy” and to hold the administration accountable for “manipulated pre-war intelligence, poor planning and contract abuses” offer potential points of differentiation from a “Republican-lite” approach to Iraq. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., has provided a model for how to keep intelligence distortions and contractor corruption in the public eye, as have Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and his colleagues on the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

On the issue of fighting terrorism, the two most specific planks are to “[e]liminate Osama Bin Laden [and] destroy terrorist networks like Al Qaeda” and to “[s]ecure loose nuclear materials that terrorists could use to build nuclear weapons or ‘dirty bombs’.” The first objective is as ambitious as it is unlikely, while the second is eminently achievable given adequate funding and political will.

Al Qaeda is a loosely structured “network of networks” that can operate with or without Osama Bin Laden, and “destroying” it is the wrong goal. A more realistic long-term goal would be to render Al Qaeda irrelevant by addressing the political, ideological, economic and security concerns that allow it to attract new recruits. The “real security” plan makes reference to these factors, but it contradicts itself by suggesting that Al Qaeda can somehow be wiped out as if it were a traditional military adversary.

Democrats deserve praise for targeting the threat posed by unsecured nuclear bomb-making material. Locking up the ingredients for nuclear bomb-making by 2010 would require three actions: 1) tripling current funding for this purpose from about $1 billion per year to $3 billion per year; 2) putting someone in the U.S. government in charge of the effort; and 3) expanding common ground with Russia and other nations that have significant stockpiles of these materials. Despite claiming in the 2004 presidential debates that stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction is the greatest security challenge facing the United States, President Bush has failed to significantly increase the funding or the focus on this problem. This could be a strong issue for Democrats if they can communicate the threat in non-technical language and then hammer relentlessly on the administration’s dangerously irresponsible approach to this matter.

Another positive element of the Democratic plan is the pledge to promote energy efficiency and alternative fuels. Unfortunately, the list of alternatives is broad, ranging from bio-fuels to clean coal to solar and wind energy, and there are no priorities set among the laundry list of non-oil power sources. If the Democrats could actually articulate an energy plan that talks about where to invest, how soon different technologies can make a difference, and what the economics of alternative energy is and can be, they would be better positioned to underscore the hypocrisy of President Bush’s promise to end America’s “addiction to oil” while promoting policies that have led to record profits for oil companies. One promising initiative has been put forward by the Apollo Alliance. This coalition of environmental groups and trade unions that has been promoting a 10-point plan for investing $3 billion per year for ten years in non-oil energy sources, creating 3.3 million jobs in the process.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the “real security” plan is what it doesn’t say. There is no talk of reducing the U.S. arsenal of nuclear overkill, or of destroying weapons taken off deployment under the U.S.-Russian Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). There is no position taken on the ill-considered U.S.-India nuclear deal, which, if carried through, could eviscerate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by sending a signal that U.S. allies with nuclear weapons will receive special treatment in violation of the treaty’s basic precepts. There is no position taken on whether or not the Democrats renounce the use of force against North Korea or Iran, just a vague statement that their strategy will “redouble efforts to stop nuclear weapons development” in those two nations. There is no commitment to cut back funding on the costly, unworkable missile defense program, which has cost over $130 billion since Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” speech, and has yet to produce a device capable of intercepting a long-range ballistic missile. All of these actions would put the United States in a stronger position to dissuade other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons, not to mention beginning to meet its obligation to disarm under the NPT.

Perhaps most glaringly, there are no provisions in the Democratic plan for cutting our bloated military budget, which could reach $600 billion this year once “emergency” appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taken into account. Instead, the plan proposes to “Rebuild a state-of-the-art military by making needed investments in equipment and manpower so that we can project power to protect America wherever and whenever necessary.” The implication is that at $600 billion per year, the U.S. military may somehow be underfunded. There are tens of billions of dollars worth of Cold War era relics in the military budget that are not being used in current conflicts and may never be used for any viable strategic purpose. A Democratic strategy for “real security” should call for cancellation of these systems to free up funds for other security needs.

With the 2006 elections looming, it is unlikely that the Democrats will revise their official national security strategy in any significant way. However, particular candidates are free to go beyond the narrow confines of the document to promote progressive alternatives that can prevent conflicts as well as resolve them. Supporting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, broadening the concept of security to include all threats to human life, calling for reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and diplomatic approaches to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are just a few of the pillars of a more progressive policy. Stopping arms sales to dictators and human rights abusers, who all too often end up using their U.S.-supplied weapons in ways that conflict with U.S. interests, is another concrete policy proposal that deserves support. And cutting unnecessary weapons systems to fund non-military tools of security should be the centerpiece of a new policy. Hopefully, at least some Democratic candidates for Congress will go beyond the Democratic leadership’s definition of “real security” to support genuine alternatives to the Bush Doctrine of endless war.

William D. Hartung is a Senior Research Fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School and a member of a task force led by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for American Progress that is developing an updated version of a "Unified Security Budget for the United States." He writes regularly for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at

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