The current debate on financing military operations in Iraq, as well as the Memorial Day just past, stimulated yet again my 30-year search for a national security policy that liberal and progressive Americans can endorse.
The great 20th century Democratic presidents were war presidents. Woodrow Wilson involved the U.S., against isolationist pressures, in World War I. Franklin Roosevelt overcame deep Republican isolationist sentiments, with the help of Pearl Harbor, to engage our country in World War II. Harry Truman defined the Cold War and fought in Korea. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, in varying degrees, adopted the domino theory in Southeast Asia.
As recently as 1976, Robert Dole referred to the Democratic Party as the war party. But it was the Vietnam War that ended the New Deal/Great Society age of Roosevelt and divided the nation and the Democratic Party. Since then, public opinion surveys have consistently given Republicans a substantial edge on national security concerns. and that edge gave us the age of Reagan and Bush.
As an early and vigorous opponent of the second Gulf War and constant critic of its folly, I believe liberal and progressive forces must do more than merely demand its immediate cessation. The confusion in Democratic ranks is caused by the clear public insistence that we withdraw and the knowledge that Democrats cannot continue to be seen as anti-defense and anti-military. The alternative is not for us to become the war party once again, nor is it to try to outdo hawks in military spending on new weapons systems. The alternative is for liberal and progressive people, and their elected representatives, to take the strong initiative in redefining security in the 21st century and producing a set of policies to achieve it.
Security in this new century will be more international; what I call the security of the global commons. And it will require multi-national collaboration on non-military levels. The new realities of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failed and failing states, mass south-north migrations, the threat of pandemics, climate change, and a host of similar destabilizing realities require imaginative new international cooperation. Democrats can lead us into a new round of creative internationalism that characterized the Truman years, creating new global institutions designed to deal with these realities. Perhaps most of all, we can be the champions of nuclear disarmament while endorsing innovations in our conventional forces.
But we must also understand the military, those whose lives are dedicated to protecting our nation, their professional and human needs, the equipment they require, and the nature of their duties. It would not hurt anti-war leaders to study military history and theory. It would not hurt liberals to serve in uniform. It would not hurt progressive politicians to appear before military forums and audiences and to present security ideas that resonate with those tasked with carrying them out.
Absent a new understanding of security and identification with achieving it, Democratic progressives will continue to be seen as anti-military and therefore anti-security. Consequently, when the nation feels itself to be endangered, it will always turn to conservative leaders. This cycle must be broken.
In 1980, after re-election to the Senate and without announcement, I sought a commission as a lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Navy Reserves. I did so as a means of being able to understand and communicate better with our troops. Although I did not routinely fulfill my reserve duties, I did go aboard ship on more than one occasion to find out what our forces were being required to do. I chose not to feature this experience in subsequent campaigns, but it helped me enormously in appreciating what our military does to make us more secure.
The U.S. military does not commit us to war. Most soldiers and sailors, especially those who have experienced combat, do not desire war. They are sent to war, often tragically as in Iraq, and they do their duty and too often they die. We all need to understand and respect that and we must let them know we are on their side.
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