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Can the Democratic Party Be Trusted with National Security?

Discussants: P.J. Crowley, and Richard Miniter
Updated: November 3, 2006

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The Republican Party has enjoyed an electoral advantage in recent years by emphasizing its willingness to act tough on national security matters. With foreign policy issues expected to play a larger than usual role in the outcome of the November 7 midterm elections, Republicans have sought to sharpen this edge, portraying Democrats as weak on counterterror measures and wishing to “cut and run” from the war in Iraq. The Republican-controlled Congress this fall has approved legislation to shore up border security, set up special tribunals to try suspected terrorists, and improve counterterror controls at U.S. ports. For their part, Democrats say the Bush administration’s struggles in Iraq and a lack of congressional oversight are proof of Republican incompetence on a crucial national security front.

Philip J. (P.J.) Crowley, a retired Air Force colonel who served as a special assistant for national security affairs to President Clinton, debates the ability of Democrats to run national security with Richard Miniter, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of Losing Bin Laden.

Weigh in on this debate by emailing the editors at CFR.org. To view other online debates click here.


P.J. Crowley

Most recent

November 3, 2006

P.J. Crowley

The crucial challenges we face are complex, with no easy or cost-free answers. Solutions to Iraq, Iran, or North Korea may involve not the best option, but the least bad. This is the real world. We must construct a better national security policy based not on what we will not do, but what we must do. It requires a fundamentally different approach than the existing one.

We cannot “stay on the offensive” indefinitely. Perpetual war is not sustainable and fortunately not necessary. We need to refocus our attention on al-Qaeda and not lump all evildoers together, including those who do not directly threaten us. We need to finish the arduous missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, not by staying the course, but by changing it. The judicious use of military power—small units working in conjunction with regional partners—will be far more effective. We need to adapt the military to be better at these missions.

We have to strengthen our defenses. We do not have the choice to just combat terrorism over there. We will be attacked again here in the next five to ten years. We have to act with greater urgency. We need a domestic intelligence capability based on our laws and values, not the whims of an imperial executive. Our national preparedness must be better than we saw during Hurricane Katrina. The private sector must adapt and reduce our vulnerability to attack, particularly the chemical industry. Our borders must be secure and open, backed by a reformed immigration system that manages global migration and strengthens our economic competitiveness.

But we cannot achieve national security alone. For the first time in my lifetime, the United States is widely viewed by the world as being on the wrong side of history and the problem rather than the solution. We need to critically examine our policies, understand the impact they have on the Islamic world and change them. Our consumption of fossil fuels is a good place to start. We know terrorists love failing states; we created one in Iraq. We must do more to help the world’s disadvantaged build better governments and tolerant education systems, and broaden opportunities so that they will make a different choice than Mohammed Atta [9/11 suicide pilot] did.

This is the battle of ideas. Right now we are losing this decisive front. This is where Rich fears to tread, but where the struggle will be won or lost.


Richard Miniter

November 2, 2006

Richard Miniter

While Iran has benefited from the departure of its nemesis, Saddam Hussein, P.J. is fooling himself if he thinks that mullahs have no ongoing ambitions for their oil-rich neighbor. Iran has financed a number of Shia newspapers and candidates. Roughly half of all roadside bombs are found and deactivated before they go off; of those many have Iranian detonators. Omar al-Farouq, al-Qaeda's main mover of money and men in Basra, was tracked entering Iraq from Iran. (He was shot by British forces about a month ago.) Scores of captured insurgents have been found with Iranian identity cards or other evidence of time spent in Iran. The 9/11 commission report details links between Iran and al-Qaeda. There is loads more evidence of Iran's involvement in Iraq (and some that it is fighting a proxy war against the United States there), but space is short.

Iran, via Hezbollah, has effectively colonized southern Lebanon. Why wouldn't it wish to run Iraq, which boasts the world's second-largest oil reserves?

And, of course, Iran and Iraq have a series of water, land, and oil disputes going back decades. We know that Iran's desire for these allegedly stolen resources has not slackened because stories on the topic remain a staple of its state-run media.

Finally, a democratic Shia state stands as a "dangerous" example to the oppressed people of Iran. No doubt the mullahs would like to see Iraq's democratic experiment end in tears to provide a different example to its restive population.

P.J. wants to negotiate with mullahs. How did that work out for President Carter? Or Oliver North [Reagan administration official involved in the Iran-Contra Affair]? And for the EU-3 [France, Germany, and England], which is now trying to talk them out of nuclear arms?

If we are ever to leave Iraq with a sustainable democratic state, we need to permanently dissuade its neighbors from tearing Iraq apart. In Iran’s case, that would mean highlighting the plight of dissidents, financing the bus drivers union and other pro-democracy forces inside Iran, and interrupting the flow of gasoline into Iran. (Some 52 percent of its oil is refined outside of its borders). We may want to consider doing what Iran has been doing to Iraq for the past year: counterfeiting its currency with the hope of bringing down its economy and its government. Regime change does not have to mean bombs; it just has to end in ballots.


P.J. Crowley

November 1, 2006

P.J. Crowley

Can the Democratic Party be trusted with national security and Iraq? Damn right.

The party of Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman, straight through to Carter and Clinton, has formed and strengthened alliances that have won wars and institutions that have made us prosperous; negotiated agreements to bring stability to troubled regions; recognized how energy, the environment, disease, and monetary flows can affect our security just as much as armies and terrorists; and made the United States the most respected country on earth.

Regarding Iraq, Rich Miniter can string together all the discrete indicators he wants. Iraq is a mess. Saying that the violence only affects four of eighteen provinces is like saying three of my tires are inflated. If the fourth is flat, the car is grinding to a halt. Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, recognize the need to pull over, repair the damage and set a new course.

The United States has made a strategic and moral commitment to Iraq. The cutting and running claim is a canard. Before we are done, perhaps a decade from now, we will commit a trillion dollars to Iraq (not a war that will pay for itself). The question is not a matter of resolve, but results. We should keep troops in Iraq for several years, but not 145,000 of them. Some should leave soon, to signal to the Iraqis that they must take charge. Two U.S. military missions remain: train the Iraqis and defeat al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. This can be done with far fewer troops in Iraq. The major sources of instability—sectarian violence, the militias, insecure borders, and external support for the insurgency—require political action, mostly by the Iraqis. The United States can help build regional support, which must include talking with Iran and Syria.

An Iranian victory in Iraq? That horse left the barn a long time ago. We did Iran a huge favor when we invaded. The Bush administration’s approach to Iran is backwards. The United States should engage Iran directly without precondition to build a stable Iraq, just as we did in Afghanistan. Both countries actually share this interest. It is possible that such dialogue may create an opening to resolve the nuclear issue as well.

After six years of ideologically driven failure, it is time for greater realism, starting with an honest assessment of the dire situation in Iraq and a bold approach to Iran.


Richard Miniter

October 31, 2006

Richard Miniter

Perhaps the question should be: Can the Democrats be trusted with the Iraq war?

Based on P.J.’s response, I suspect that many Americans would say no. He provides no clear policy for dealing with Iraq. None. Does he want a gradual withdrawal or a sudden, complete retreat? Or does he want to establish a set of benchmarks for the Iraqis to reach before the U.S. leaves? Or something else? You can’t beat something with nothing.

And proposing a policy is a lot harder than banging out a list of talking points and one-liners. To develop a serious alternative, Democrats would have to grapple with the complexities of contemporary Iraq.

If they do that, they would have to admit that some things have gone well. Iraq now has its most liberal constitution since the 1920s, with equal rights for women, a free press, religious pluralism, and free multiparty elections. Per-capita income in Iraq has tripled from 2003 to 2005, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Virtually all of the violence is limited to four out of eighteen provinces.

What about the war? There is no danger of military defeat. The best estimates that I have seen for the total insurgency is about 12,000 fighters (counting all three insurgencies). By contrast, the United States currently has about 140,000 troops in Iraq, the British another 10,000, the Eastern Europeans another 20,000. So the allies outnumber the enemy by about fourteen to one. Add to that some 250,000 Iraqi troops of varying levels of ability. That makes 420,000—a forty-two to one advantage over the insurgents. (For those who call for more troops, I wonder: Would the war look any different if the allies had a forty-five-to-one advantage instead of forty-two to one?) The enemy is not able to hold territory inside Iraq. (Hey P.J., if you have the GPS coordinates to those so-called al-Qaeda training camps, why don’t you pass them to the U.S. Air Force?)

Instead, the war is a series of roadside bombs, sniper attacks, and mortar attacks. It requires more and better police (the new Iraqi police force is a mess) and human intelligence. The bigger issue is the one that no one discusses: What if we are not fighting a true Iraqi insurgency, but a proxy force funded and led by Iran? And if we are fighting Iran inside Iraq, what can be done about it? Finally, if Iran is deeply involved, what are the costs of handing the Islamic republic a victory and allowing it to colonize Iraq?


P.J. Crowley

October 31, 2006

P.J. Crowley

We are approaching the 2006 midterm elections and Rich Miniter wants to go back to the 1990s. Most Americans would as well. Notwithstanding the twentieth amendment, if Bill Clinton were running against George W. Bush based on their respective national security records, it would be a Clinton landslide.

But, alas, neither president is on the ballot. These are congressional elections, important in their own right. The American people rightfully give Congress as an institution extremely low marks for how it is currently doing its principal jobs—passing legislation, approving the budget, and overseeing the executive branch.

The United States remains vulnerable to further acts of terrorism. The majority’s response is a 700-mile fence along a 2,000 border with Mexico. Fencing off the United States from the world’s dangers? How nineteenth century!

Federal government spending today bears no resemblance to the level of revenue being taken in. “We’re at war, let’s pass another tax cut!” is the current rallying cry of the majority, quite a contrast to Kennedy’s pledge to “bear any burden” during the Cold War.

Then there is Iraq. Mr. Miniter does not mention Iraq. It is a costly mistake that has enabled al-Qaeda to establish a new deadly training ground and recruiting tool. Members of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, are now rejecting the president’s Iraq strategy. Had the majority leadership exercised proper oversight in 2003, we might have consolidated our gains in Afghanistan—and killed Osama bin Laden—before turning our attention elsewhere.

Mr. Miniter has sold a lot of books criticizing the Clinton administration, in which I served, but the right precedent is not the year 2000, but 1991. The first Bush administration, guided by the likes of Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Steve Hadley, also won a military campaign, but lost the peace and failed to achieve our strategic objectives in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein cheated, their response was containment, which necessitated permanent military forces within Saudi Arabia. It was that decision that caused bin Laden to focus on and ultimately attack the “far enemy.”

If history is to be our guide, the Clinton administration employed military force strategically to contain not just Saddam Hussein, but all members of the “Axis of Evil.” Iraq, Iran, and North Korea all pose greater danger to the United States today than they did six years ago.

Whom to trust? The answer is a slam dunk.


Richard Miniter

October 30, 2006

Richard Miniter

At first the question about whether the world’s oldest political party can be trusted with national security is both insulting and strange. Every one of America’s twentieth-century wars began and ended successfully with a Democratic Party president—except for the Vietnam War, which began with a Democratic president and ended unhappily with a Republican.

But much has changed since then. The Democratic Party has become intensely suspicious of American power, especially when it is exercised abroad in non-humanitarian missions. The notion that America would use its might to resculpt the world in its image has become noxious and alien to many Democrats.  

The Democratic Party has not clearly articulated a unified view of national security. This ambiguity makes it difficult to address whether or not Democrats can be trusted with the nation’s national security. In absence of a definite Democratic view, one is left to look at the record of the Clinton administration.

Here we find happy and unhappy precedents. One of America’s greatest counterterrorism successes occurred in defeating the millennium plots of 1999 and 2000, thanks to the valiant efforts of Richard Clarke and other members of [President Bill Clinton’s] National Security Council.  In December 2000, Clarke forced the CIA, the FBI, and other agencies to share information to stop a series of terrorist plots at home and abroad. They were successful.

Both before and after this period the Clinton administration was bedeviled by law enforcement restrictions that kept it from fully pursuing terrorists and was haunted by a fear of using American military power. In the wake of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000, in which some forty American sailors were killed or injured, the Clinton principals met to vote on a recommendation to the president. For reasons ranging from a regard for international law [voiced by Attorney General Janet Reno], to a lack of proportionality in the proposed counterstrike [Defense Secretary William Cohen], they essentially took no action. If they had agreed to Clarke’s plan for a massive cruise missile strike, all al-Qaeda and Taliban infrastructure would have been destroyed almost a year before 9/11. Historians will long debate whether this would have prevented the 9/11 attacks. 

While struggling to answer the question of whether the Democrats can be trusted with national security, one must first ask which Democrats we are talking about: the Democrats who manfully prevented the millennium attacks or the ones who bureaucratically failed to answer a string of earlier and later attacks?

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