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Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld

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National Security Leadership: A Litmus Test

Posted: 03/23/2012 2:44 pm

No one celebrates nine-year anniversaries. But March 19th would mark nine years in Iraq -- had the president not drawn down our forces last year. This non-anniversary deserves a moment to recognize the importance of electing tough and smart civilian leaders.
 
Over one million Americans served in the Iraq War since 2003. Nearly 4,500 gave their lives.  But our nation's military does not make decisions on war and peace. This right is reserved for those who hold elected office. That means that each of us, as citizens, has a sacred duty to weigh the lives of the men and women in uniform when we elect leaders.
 
Today's political battlefield is unusual. For many years, Republicans have been assumed to be better on national security. But the situation seems to be reversing.  We have a surprisingly out of touch, reckless slate of candidates on one side -- and a decisive, serious leader for the Democrats. It's worth exploring why.
 
President Obama's vision for American security drew on the lessons of our greatest generation -- leaders such as Harry Truman. During the end of World War II and the early Cold War, they set us on a course to be the strongest country in the world. In updating their lessons for today, Obama has created a highly effective policy.
 
Our world is interconnected.  People in a cave in Afghanistan can tear apart the New York City skyline.  We can't isolate ourselves, and simply ignore the world -- that was the lesson we drew as WWII gained steam, and the mistake we slipped into before Sept. 11.  We also can't afford to impoverish ourselves in our efforts abroad -- no great power has ever had a weak economy. The lessons our leaders drew after WWII still hold: we need to carry a big stick -- but use it rarely.  We need to build alliances that can share burdens and costs.  And we need to stand for our values because these help our security -- as Truman realized when he used Marshall Plan aid to stop communism's spread to Europe.
 
Obama's application of these lessons has built a series of security victories.  He showed decisiveness in going after Osama bin Laden, over the objections of many of his senior advisors who thought the mission was too risky.  He used pinprick attacks to decimate terrorist strongholds in Pakistan, destroying al Qaeda's leadership (now thought to number below 100 in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region) while avoiding a new war. By building a coalition to preserve life in Libya, he enabled America to stand for our values while sharing the burden of being a superpower.  We are not tied down in Africa for a decade, spending trillions of dollars and thousands of lives -- and we probably stopped the sort of civilian destruction now happening in Syria.
 
As after World War II, the White House realized that we owe our veterans action, not just words.  Obama passed new tax credits that encourage businesses to hire veterans, created re-training programs for veterans seeking jobs in the private sector, and secured pledges from America's largest businesses to hire vets and their spouses.

Presidential and vice presidential spouses Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have focused on military families. And when Congress was in Democratic hands, it passed a historic GI Bill, and measures to fund and improve the VA. As President Obama said, "part of ending a war responsibly is standing by those who fought it."
 
Meanwhile, we started the year with a group of Republican candidates who seemed to think national security was just politics. Herman Cain joked that he didn't know how to pronounce Uzbekistan -- a country that provides supply lines to our fighters in Afghanistan. Newt Gingrich promised to bring oil to $2.50 a gallon -- while saber-rattling against Iran. Gingrich knows that since Iran is a major oil supplier, even the threat of war in that region would cause oil prices to skyrocket.

He was just playing politics with our security and our pocketbooks. And Mitt Romney, of course, famously stumped for the war in Vietnam while in college -- even though he chose not to serve, instead receiving a deferment and spending the war in France.
 
Obama's loudest critics clamor for war with Iran and an unending mission in Afghanistan.  Obama has carefully flexed American muscle while rebuilding our economy. Their rhetoric on America's weakness does not match the reality of our global strength. We've gained allies in the fight against extremists and friends who are facing down Iran.

The administration's sanctions against Iran are the toughest ever, and the number of countries we've involved has tightened the noose. Isolated and surrounded by our allies, Iran is feeling the pain.
 
As Paul Begala wrote in Newsweek recently, "President Obama's foreign policy has been remarkably successful. Just ask 22 of the top 30 al Qaeda leaders. Oh, wait, you can't. They're dead -- on Obama's orders." The idea that Democrats are weak on foreign policy is as old-fashioned as telegrams.
 
There's a clear contrast between policy that draws on the lessons of our greatest generation, and policy formed in a political chop shop. The question Americans have before them this year is important, and stark.

Rachel Kleinfeld is the co-founder and CEO of the Truman National Security Project. She lives in Colorado.