Democrats Will Have to Hop Onto Security Wagon. Squawking about the Iraq war has turned away voters needed for victory in 2004

Many Democrats hope the 2004 election will unfold along the lines of the 1992 election, when their party regained the White House – despite then-President Bush’s Persian Gulf War success – by focusing on domestic affairs. It’s an appealing notion. It’s also wrong.

The home-front-over-war-front approach didn’t work in the 2002 midterm elections, and it won’t work next year. The ripple effect of Sept. 11 – the airport screenings, duct-tape advisories, Code Orange alerts, terror attacks overseas and U.S.-based terrorist sleeper cells – has focused Americans on personal security to an extent not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And today, personal security means national security.

In 2004, Democratic candidates will be successful only if they can convince Americans to entrust them with their safety.

The record to date isn’t great. Loud opposition to the war by some Democratic presidential candidates, congressional leaders and party activists has alienated many voters, a majority of whom supported the war and believe that removing Saddam Hussein was in the U.S. interest. Asked which party will best keep them safe, Americans overwhelmingly say Republicans will. Unless feelings change, or the Bush administration implodes from ineptitude or scandal, that perception alone could propel the GOP to victory in 2004.

To compete next election year, Democrats must articulate their own national security doctrine. They must understand that this is a new era, and that they’ll have to explain the opposition of many in the party to war in Iraq, while reassuring swing voters that Democrats take national security seriously. They must articulate the party’s stand on three key issues:

First, they must outline their approach to national security in today’s world. For half a century, through Democratic and Republican administrations, the U.S. relied on the strategy of containment in a bipolar competition with the Soviet Union. Academics developed the concept theoretically, and politicians applied it in proxy wars and tense, eye-to-eye confrontations. Now, the Bush administration has replaced the policy of containment with one of preemption – the theory that the nation should use military force not in response to actual hostilities but in anticipation of them. If preemption makes sense in a world of terrorist networks operating independently of nation-states and with growing access to chemical, biological and radiological weapons, we need to develop standards by which to apply it. Why Iraq? Why not Syria, or Iran, or North Korea? If, by contrast, Democrats reject preemption, the party and its candidates must explain how containment can work in the new world of cross-national terror – or provide an alternative.

Second, the Democrats need to lay out under what conditions the U.S. should use force abroad to achieve its national goals. Surely Democrats believe that force is justified in self defense, and that military action was necessary in Afghanistan to decapitate Al Qaeda. But what else would justify force? Humanitarianism? Most Democrats stood behind President Clinton when he intervened in the Balkans to save perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives. Yet, today, many leading Democrats scoff at President Bush’s liberationist rhetoric on Iraq. (Republicans were no better, opposing humanitarianism in the Balkans but supporting it in Iraq.) What’s the difference? And if humanitarian concerns don’t meet the test, does anything else?

Third, the Democrats need to explain the conditions under which the nation should seek the approval of the United Nations before taking military action. The Bush administration sowed seeds of discord around the world by dismissing the Kyoto Protocol, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the International Criminal Court and other global agreements. But in a backlash against U.S. unilateral military, economic and political might, any administration could face the prospect of a French, Russian or Chinese Security Council veto of proposed military action against a hostile nation. Indeed, as the world’s preeminent power, the U.S. will face entrenched opposition – even from allies – simply as a matter of principle or national pride.

What should a president do in that situation, and how would Democrats work through the U.N. while preserving the notion of U.S. security interests? If, as many leading Democrats seem to believe, Hussein posed a threat but the current administration abandoned the Security Council too hastily, how should the nation have gone it alone?

If Bush’s focus on building “coalitions of the willing” outside the Security Council offends the internationalism of Democrats, what would a Democratic president do if, say, France voted against crucial U.S. security interests? Democrats need to consider whether multilateral organizations that date back to the aftermath of World War II still make sense in a vastly different world.

Some 40 years ago, President Kennedy was chatting in the Oval Office with former Vice President Richard Nixon about world tensions after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in 1961. “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it?” the president said. “I mean, who [cares] if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”

Kennedy’s question has particular relevance today. To be sure, national security is not the only important issue of the day. The U.S. faces vital questions on a host of domestic matters: How much debt will we leave to our children through exponentially growing budget deficits? What is our obligation to provide more health-care coverage to the elderly and the uninsured? How can we best overcome the racial and wealth divisions that continue to plague our politics and our people? What is becoming of the American social contract where the well-off contribute more to government needs so that the poor and weak can have reasons for hope and lives of dignity?

Still, in a post-9/11 world, Democrats will never have an adequate chance to debate those issues – on which they can campaign and win – if they can’t overcome public skepticism about how they would handle the nation’s defense. It’s not the economy, stupid, any longer – and asking whether voters are better off today than they were four years ago will mean are they safer and more secure, not richer and better employed. Whether Democrats like it or not, the road to the White House in 2004 runs through national security.