|Boston Globe, August 14, 2005
Democrats embrace tough military stance
Sharpen message on foreign policy
By Rick Klein
WASHINGTON -- After months of internal debate and closed-door discussions,
Democrats have begun to develop a more aggressive foreign policy that
focuses heavily on threats they say are being neglected by the Bush
administration, while avoiding taking a contentious stance on Iraq.
Even Democrats who have been associated with liberal positions on
international affairs are calling for more troops in uniform, proposing
that threats of force be used to stop nuclear weapons programs in Iran and
North Korea, and pressing for potential military intervention to ease
famine and oppression around the world.
Democrats are also calling for better pay and benefits for soldiers and
heightened efforts to protect mass transit and other potential terrorist
The emerging message among Democrats reflects a recognition that winning
congressional and presidential elections in the post-Sept. 11 era requires
candidates to establish a willingness to use America's military might and
keep the nation safe, according to party leaders and strategists.
Despite pressure from liberal groups calling for a quick exit from Iraq,
several of the party's White House aspirants and congressional leaders are
calling for the United States to intensify efforts to bring stability to
the nation before troops come home.
Beyond that, they are endorsing a broader vision for how US power should be
exerted, one that includes military involvement in humanitarian missions as
well as a quick response to imminent security threats.
''Having the strongest military in the world is the first step, but we also
have to have a strong commitment to using our military in smart ways that
further peace, stability, and security around the world," Senator Hillary
Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, said at the Democratic Leadership
Council in Columbus, Ohio, last month.
The approach involves a closer embrace of the armed forces than many
Democrats and even Republicans have been comfortable with in recent years.
Clinton has called for adding 80,000 troops to the armed services, at a
time when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has called for a streamlined
force with greater emphasis on technology.
Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, hit the presidential proving ground
of Iowa early this month to warn that ''people don't think we [Democrats]
have the backbone" to deploy the military, and said Democrats must overcome
that perception to be successful in future elections.
Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, has laid out a doctrine of rebuilding
alliances while making clear that ''force will be used -- without asking
anyone's permission -- when circumstances warrant."
Last month, a group of mostly Democratic senators called for boosted
funding to secure rail and mass transit systems after the terror attacks in
London. Democrats have been at the forefront of recent efforts in Congress
to extend health benefits to more National Guard members and to expand
veterans' healthcare programs.
The messages have grown out of a series of party caucus meetings among
House members and senators, and conferences on national security, as well
as research and polling generated by Democratic think tanks.
The Democrats are emphasizing international coalitions, but are making it
clear that they will not hesitate to act unilaterally if necessary, said
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist
Democratic think tank. ''If you're not credible on security, it doesn't
matter if you have better ideas on healthcare and education and everything
else," Marshall said.
The move toward a greater willingness to use force is striking for a party
that has wrestled with deep divisions over the role of the military since
the Vietnam War, and not all Democrats have joined the shift. Liberal
groups such as Moveon.org are calling for an immediate withdrawal of US
troops from Iraq. Howard Dean has mostly remained silent on foreign affairs
as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
While Democrats criticize President Bush for mistakes in Iraq, the party is
neither calling for a pullout nor pushing for an escalation. That approach
allows Democrats to sharply criticize Bush on foreign policy even as they
remain divided over how to proceed in Iraq -- an issue that tripped up
Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, during the presidential
campaign last year.
The top Democrats in the House and Senate issued a report last month that
harshly critiqued Bush administration efforts to keep nuclear weapons out
of the hands of terrorists. The report -- endorsed by the House minority
leader, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate minority leader, Harry Reid -- details
Iranian and North Korean steps toward building nuclear weapons, and lagging
efforts to secure ''loose nukes" in Russia that could fall into the hands
The report calls for the United States to engage in more direct
negotiations with Iran and North Korea, and for the talks to be reinforced
with military pressure, including ''the possibility of repeated and
''The US is fighting a global war on terrorism, but not a global war on
weapons of mass destruction," Pelosi, Democrat of California, said in
releasing the report. ''The lack of leadership by the Bush administration
in these areas has made the American people less safe than they should be."
Portions of the Democrats' message build on policy positions stated by
Kerry in his presidential campaign. Kerry also called for more troops in
uniform and did not renounce his decision to vote for the Iraq war even as
he criticized Bush for missteps in carrying out the war and in other areas
of foreign policy.
But Kerry's inability to articulate a clear message gave Bush an opening to
attack the Democrat as weak on national security. Bush famously lampooned
Kerry for having said he voted for additional funding for troops before he
voted against it, and mocked Kerry for what he said was an internationalist
policy where he would only use US force after getting a ''permission slip"
from other nations.
Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, noted that Kerry
lost 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties in the nation. Those areas are
filled with young suburban families who want a president who will make them
feel safe after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
''We didn't lose those 97 counties on cultural issues or on abortion," said
Roemer, a member of the 9/11 Commission who ran for party chairman this
year on a national-security platform. ''We primarily lost those because we
did not have a compelling national-security message."
At the Democratic Leadership Council's convention, Roemer urged Democrats
to return to the foreign-policy visions of Democratic presidents Woodrow
Wilson, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy. ''We must be prepared to
strategically use our military, as a party, for good, and against other
transnational threats in addition to the threat of terrorism," Roemer said.
''Our military must be equipped not only to look at the jihadist threat,
and the ongoing threat of terrorism over the next few decades, but it
should be equipped to do more than that."
After losing ground in Congress in the first two national elections since
Sept. 11, Democrats appear to be waking up to the changed political
reality, said William Galston, professor of public policy at the University
of Maryland and former Democratic presidential campaign adviser. ''All of
this is very necessary and very productive," he said. ''It will prepare the
ground for the real rebranding of the party that will have to occur. If the
party were as divided and -- to be blunt -- as confused on these issues in
2008 as it was in 2004, then the 2008 nominee will have a very difficult time."