02/09/2006 06:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

National Security: Rove's Achille's Heel

Two weeks ago, Karl Rove addressed the conservative faithful here in Washington with a typical display of magic. In front of an audience with severe political indigestion (caused by a diet rich in lobbyists minus principles), Rove previewed his 2006 electoral strategy. The rabbit he pulled out of the hat was the Energizer Bunny -- wound up and clanking "liberals are weak on defense, soft on security, and won't keep you safe." Specifically he said:

"At the core, we are dealing with two parties that have fundamentally different views on national security. Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview -- and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong -- deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

Then this week Rove's employer rolled out a defense strategy and a federal budget that hearkens back to approximately 1985. But definitely pre-9/11. Why? Because the Bush Administration -- with its profoundly wrong world view -- refuses to lay out a strong and effective defense strategy for post-9/11 threats. One primary lesson from both Iraq and Afghanistan is that the way to keep our military strong is to share the responsibilities for national security across the government -- made obvious by the gaps in our post-war reconstruction efforts. Defense is just one part of a national security strategy, but the vast majority of security dollars go to the defense budget (over half a trillion dollars for 2007).

Re-balancing spending across the government is the work of decades, but today we're draining the coffers of defense to purchase billions of dollars worth of weapons designed to thwart the Soviet Union. This must stop. These "pre-9/11" priorities are being foisted on us when our National Guard troops need basic items like trucks, ammo and language training.

Ever since Katrina, our commander-in-chief has lost credibility on the issue that he ran on: national security. Many Americans have a nagging, uncomfortable feeling that these guys really don't know what they are talking about. Its time for liberals to hit back hard. This will require renewed interest, updated language and a national security lead on every issue that comes up in public conversation. We must not let Rove be right. First step: let go of the guns-versus-butter debate pronto. What we need now is a guns-versus-guns debate.

One way to do this is to praise part of the strategy (called the QDR -- quadrennial defense review) while criticizing its overall direction. For example, buffing up the Special Operations Command is a good move (these are the multitasking humanities geeks of the military, negotiating over tea one day and whacking baddies the next) but indulging in missile defense, space weapons and Cold War-era fighter planes is not. Center for American Progress published a terrific document with many such recommendations. Liberals and cheap Hawks in both political parties should be able to come together and condemn these outrageous "pre-9/11" expenditures that showed up both in the strategy and in the defense budget.

Rove's governing method of placing politics above the nation's best interests is starting to close in on him. The conversation is shifting. Author Ralph Peters penned an article in the conservative New York Post which pretty much agrees with liberal opinions. Anyone wanting to make a compelling case for changing directions would be wise to read up on Peters -- his Weekly Standard cover story last week may have read like a Harlequin romance for conservative defense wonks -- i.e., lots of heavy breathing over the American left -- but he is on mark when it comes to issues and priorities.

Other words for liberals to leave behind are generic condemnations like "Pentagon spending" (not all of it is bad) or spooky descriptions like "military-industrial complex." These are lazy and obsolete crutches a time when our military could sure use some help reigning in the industry not to mention the people with a complex (the neo-cons).

The information support system for liberals who want to talk about national security is serious and it's growing. Try the Foreign Policy Leadership Council, the Security Policy Working Group and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Read up! We need to get started on this while Rove is preoccupied with the Energizer Bunny (training it to do an interpretive dance when it runs into the constitution, no doubt).