THE BLOG
10/02/2007 10:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Talking National Security in '08

So the "inept" Iraqi government did what the U.S. Congress should have done years ago. They threw out private military contractor Blackwater and caused unprecedented interest in commercial war fighting. Despite this, I have a sneaking suspicion that if KBR or Halliburton had received a no-bid billion dollar contract to run the SCHIP (State Child Health Insurance Program), there would be no threatened veto from this White House. The privatization of our public sector has come full circle.

As P.W. Singer points out in this must-read briefing paper Blackwater and other private sector soldiers put our very philosophy of government at stake -- and every conversation about profiteering and uncontrolled violence in Iraq needs to round back to this common denominator: What is the essential purpose of our government? The monopoly on violence is the undergirding notion of the state. Yet this has been outsourced with barely a murmur by our elected leaders. The privatization of war is just the last domino to fall after decades of privatization of the public sector. The military was supposed to be the sacred cow, even for conservatives. But now, it too has been slaughtered in the free market of the fundamentalists. Privatization has greatly harmed what many consider our finest public service -- for this reason it must be a centerpiece issue in how we talk about national security throughout the election year.

I've been traveling over the last month, in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Georgia, giving talks in communities about national security. I've learned a few things along the way that might be non scientifically helpful to progressives interested in framing -- and winning -- this issue in 2008.

What is national security? Audiences seem to understand -- in the abstract -- what this means but they don't specifically know. For example, although we Americans look to the military to take care of threats for us, we also know that they can't do it all. We are in a world that is beyond the protection of the military. AND these audiences are extremely unsatisfied with what we have. The self-dealing of the Bush administration has come home, roosted and made a huge stinking mess on White House credibility and the Republican party by association. But the Dems are not escaping public daggers either. I heard a lot of unhappiness about Congress' seeming unwillingness to take dramatic action on the Iraq war -- and also controversy over Moveon's Petraeus ad.

(Re: General Petraeus: Why spend any firepower criticizing public servants when you could direct those resources at civilian elected leaders? Even more important, the downsizing of our government has put the USA on the road to being Pakistan, where the only functioning agency is the military. Right now, the U.S. military represents most of our institutional memory on national security and it has more respect for democratic practice than many civilian electeds. Love him or hate him, General Petraus will be a key figure in fundamentally changing how we view issues of war and peace. Progressives will need him and many of his cohort if we want to change our relationship with the world -- this includes the ability to do something about genocides in places like Darfur)

The conservatives' free ride on national security is over. My friend the psychologist once explained to me how populations will go along with extreme ideas from their leaders if the people perceive that these ideas are honestly come by. The downfall comes when the purity is exposed as a sham. Then corruption becomes the theme. That is what is happening now on national security. It presents a significant opportunity when it comes to taking the terrain both rhetorically and substantively on this issue.

One of the ways I help groups re-frame is by introducing the idea of National Security with a bit of context. If you make a sequential argument with progressive ideas, it's very hard to put the progressive perspective into the margin -- and it avoids dualistic thinking like guns versus butter or hawks versus doves.

National Security framing in 8 steps:

First: State that we have a leadership crisis on national security. Our policies are not making us safer and elected leaders are not acting to remedy it. Iraq is emblematic of this crisis.

Second, acknowledge that national security should be the top priority for every elected leader and of great concern to all Americans. This is a gateway statement -- it recognizes peoples' legitimate fears so they are willing to hear new ideas.

Third, point out that, today, national security is a much broader concept than it was even two decades ago. During the Cold War, it was easy to define it as a military responsibility and measure it by arms control treaties and borders and thereby contain it. Today's world is vastly different.

Fourth: In today's world, threats are widely distributed, from criminal networks with nukes to lack of public education for girls. Here at home, threats come as a possible result of climate change -- see New Orleans. Or on your evening commute in Minneapolis when an infirm bridge collapses. These threats should also shape our national security priorities.

Fifth. The problem is that our elected leaders haven't had a serious priorities discussion for years. They have not put everything on the table, matched ends to means, and made some hard decisions about where we spend money. Here is a good time to point out that our military has largely been handed the responsibility for much of today's national security -- without a corresponding discussion by Congress or anyone else. Should they be the default responders to everything from civil society support in Iraq to policing New Orleans?

Sixth: Give examples of how to broaden the national security discussion. Limit it to just two, so you're not throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the "security" category. I use public health -- or bioterrorism defense -- and roads and bridges -- or critical infrastructure. The health data are state by state here. Critical Infrastructure data by state is available here. If you want to be conservative, stick to priorities within the defense budget itself -- military education, peacekeeping training and counter-IED technology are good bets.

Seven: use this document, the unified security budget, to identify numbers and details on Cold War weapons programs that we continue to fund. There's $70 billion for you. Then you can get city-specific spending data here. This is where our elected leaders can start making tradeoffs to achieve real security.

Eight: Open it up for discussion

On Sept 16th in Iraq, a sobbing mom clutched her baby in the back of an errant car. Their driver was dead. The police approached and then they ran to save themselves, leaving the two to be torched in a metal coffin. Killed by private sector soldiers, paid for by the American taxpayer.

Although brought up in a Christian church, I haven't been for years. But lately I've been praying to God every day to forgive us. For we, the American people, let this happen. We created Blackwater. It is just the most egregious example of what we've done to ourselves and now to others.

Championing public service -- including the military -- must be a cornerstone of any discussion about the future of our nation and its security. This will require progressives and other public minded people to step into the town square to meet head-on the neo-cons, the Reagan groupies and their patrons on the now wide-open terrain of national security definition. And we must defeat them. In the process, we'll make 2008 the year that we re-invent our democracy.