08/26/2010 10:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Must Come Next in the Park51 Debate: Democrats Protecting America

On August 13th, President Barack Obama fortified the religious freedom of all Americans by defending the right of developers to build an Islamic community center with a prayer room (a.k.a. Park51) in Lower Manhattan.

A day later, the president differentiated between the "wisdom" of the Park51 project (labeled the "Ground Zero Mosque" by its opponents) and the constitutional rights of project developers. Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter, immediately put Obama's comments in proper context. In the Washington Post, Gerson writes that just because the President changed his tone on Park51, doesn't mean what he said was wrong. Gerson praises Obama's promotion of religious freedom as a matter of vital national interest.

Ironically, it's conservative Michael Gerson and most recently libertarian Ron Paul who are taking the national conversation about Park51 to a new level. It is mind-boggling that Democrats -- given President Obama's record on matters of vital national interest -- are not driving the debate on Park51. The truth that Democrats must start shouting from the rooftops is that the debate is not only about fighting intolerance; it's about protecting America.

Gerson's clarity on the Park51 debate is out of sync with Republican leaders who hammered Obama's August 13th comments as out of touch and cowardly - their latest cycle of political grandstanding and Islamophobic lies in the matter of the "Ground Zero Mosque". In his Washington Post piece, Gerson guts the logic behind these attacks on Obama, making it clear that it's Republican demagogues who don't understand how to fight America's enemies. Gerson writes, "Those who want a president to assert that any mosque would defile the neighborhood near Ground Zero are asking him to undermine the war on terrorism. A war on Islam would make a war on terrorism impossible."

In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama called for a "new beginning" between the Muslim world and America and powerfully reminded a worldwide audience of the centuries of coexistence and cooperation between Islam and the West.

The speech was a landmark step forward in creating new allies in the moderate Muslim world -- new, powerful allies in America's fight against those violent Islamic radicals who do our nation and the world harm. The Muslim world celebrated the speech and even extremist Web sites, which have carried statements from Al Qaeda in the past, praised Obama, calling him a "wise enemy."

The Cairo speech clearly shows that President Obama inherently understands what experienced FBI terrorist interrogator Ali Soufan has been saying recently -- that Al Qaeda loses every time Americans dispel the twisted myth that we are at war with Islam and all Muslims.

Ron Paul raised the level of debate most recently by asserting that the hateful and demagogic opposition to Park51 is driven by "neo-conservatives who demand continual war in the Middle East and Central Asia and are compelled to constantly justify it."

Paul's assertions are a powerful reminder of neo-cons/the Bush Administration's disastrous record on national security -- a record that President Obama has swiftly begun to correct.

President Bush's ill-conceived invasion of Iraq has given way to Obama's responsible end of combat in Iraq. The neo-con's fraudulent search for WMD's in Iraq has given way to Obama's first victory (a nuclear arms treaty with Russia) in a large-scale, audacious plan to keep terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials and to stop new nations from obtaining these weapons as well.

Eight years of neo-conservative ineptitude in Afghanistan have given way to a Commander in Chief who honors our troops by creating the strategy they need to win. Recent successes like the Marja and Kandahar offensives as well as Obama's decisive installation of Gen. Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan are key parts of this strategy.

The Park51 debate also continues to reveal Republicans' incompetence on national security. Republican fraud and xenophobia over Park51 does nothing to keep America safe and potentially imperils our nation. No one is happier about the GOP's "Ground Zero Mosque" hysteria than Osama Bin Laden. Ali Soufan writes that Bin Laden's "next video script has just written itself". On the issue of Afghanistan, Republicans clearly have no discernable strategy...beyond making it harder for Gen. Petraeus to do his job. As Frank Rich sagely points out, Islamaphobic hysteria over Park51 undercuts Petraeus' mission to win hearts and minds in Kandahar. In an attempt to create a new wedge issue out of a craven desire to win elections, Republicans are undermining the core message of American troops in Afghanistan.

As the debate continues, Progressives must follow the advice of Jim Arkedis, director of the Progressive Policy Institute's National Security Project: "Progressives speaking about national security should say, with numbing repetition, the following truths: that progressive policies have the Taliban on the run, al-Qaida crippled, Iran isolated, nukes secured, terrorist plots squashed and pirates crushed. Compare that to the recklessness of conservatives who got us into the wrong war against the wrong enemy at a high cost."

The Park 51 debate is a chance for Democrats to connect with the American people on the most vital truth of all: that on the fierce and urgent matter of paying real tribute to those who gave their lives on 9/11 and to those who serve and sacrifice as members of our Armed Forces, it's President Barack Obama who has a strong, smart, principled plan to protect every American man, woman and child today, tomorrow and in the years to come.

It's time to shout this truth from the rooftops.