(cross-posted at Kos and switzerblog)

One recurring theme when discussing Democrats’ inability to win the big races and seal the deal with the public is the continued perception of our weakness on military issues.  No matter how many times or how many ways we approach it, we’re considered weaker than the Republicans when it comes to national defense.  When this problem comes up, the answers are always the same:

Wes Clark will save us!   –   (full diary here)

We’ll win if we run a real veteran!

Look, another veteran on our side!

We support the troops, not the war!

Democrats just have to stand up and oppose the Iraq war forcefully!

We just need to offer our plan to get out of Iraq!

Jumpity jump
I don’t call out those diaries and those comments to shine the harsh light of criticism on them – they’re just examples, and in fact taken one by one I don’t disagree with most of what is said (with the exception of Wes Clark – I don’t believe he’s anyone’s savior).    The point is to show that, unlike the GOP, we have no overarching military plan and strategy.

The GOP, like it or not, agree with it or not, has a plan and a strategy:  Spend on defense, prevent anyone else from developing weapons, and scare the hell out of anyone who’s already got them.  If someone gets uppity, pound on them fast and hard and apologize later.  

Our strategy is, as with most issues, scattershot.  If there is an overriding theme, it is “find warriors of yesterday to justify our current opinion of the current military action”.  But no one, not on Kos, not in the media, not in the DNC, not in the DLC, can offer a singular, compelling and encompassing plan to ensure the national defense.  Hell, with 64% of the country now admitting to doubts about Iraq, we can’t even offer a single plan on this.  As long as we’re fighting among ourselves whether to:  A:  pull out now   B:  pull out strategically, or  C:  increase troop strength until we’ve “won”, Bush doesn’t HAVE to do anything.  We’ve got nothing coherent for him to respond to, so he can just hold the course and his homeland security numbers stay above 50%.

We have to get our heads out of the sand, stop waiting for one-off saviors from 40 year old wars, and decide how we intend to protect this country today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year and in future decades.  Will we build up the military strategically and invest in better technology, as Clinton started to do?  Will we invest in combination of diplomatic efforts, foreign aid to poor communities in at-risk areas and a tough stance on radical outliers?  Will we deploy more resources on the coastlines, at ports?  Do we have the stomach to say we will hunt down people who threaten us – even if we have to do it here at home?

Some of you are planning to answer me in the comments by saying we’ll protect the country by pulling out of Iraq and staying out of the Middle East, blibbedy blah.  You’re missing the point.  It isn’t about Iraq.  Iraq is nothing more than a historical blip; we’ve been in worse scrapes than this and the world recovers.  Our plan in Iraq must depend on our long-term vision – we need vision FIRST, then we can decide what to do in Iraq according to that vision.  We need coherence, and long-term planning for the future.

What do we have to face?

*    Nuclear North Korea.  They have missiles that can reach us, and they’re nuclear.  What do we do?

*    Nuclear Russia.  They don’t even know what they have – or if they still have it.  

*    Nuclear Pakistan.  They’re only our ally as long as we can protect Musharraff.

*    Nuclear Iran.  We’ve made them very nervous, and their theocracy is more than willing to pull the trigger on neighborhood nutjobs.

*    An annoyed, militarily and economically strong China.  As they gain strength and we weaken ourselves, they need us less and less – and that’s a problem.

*    Terrorists abroad.  Massive groups planning coordinated attacks on our military bases, on our allies, and trying to infiltrate our borders

*    Terrorists at home.  White supremacists, militias, and already-here radical Islamist cells – armed, trained and patient.  

*    Weak ports.  Our security at home is unbelievably porous, and the amazing thing is that we HAVEN’T been attacked this way yet – probably just because they’re waiting to get their hands on a big enough bomb to do the trick from the water.

*    Violent dictators, and our own inaction.  Think people in Sudan don’t notice how hard it is to get our attention?  Think maybe they’d like to thank us for taking so long to notice them?  There are a lot of countries in this situation, and they notice who we help and who we don’t.

And that isn’t even all of it.  That’s just what I can remember now.  

We have to provide answers to these, and as yet unforeseen, threats.  A Department of Peace isn’t the answer.  A bloated, endlessly and unquestioningly funded Department of Defense isn’t the answer.  But right now, we can’t say truthfully that we have a coherent plan for national defense moving to the future.

Howard Dean is one of the Democrats trying to get us there, but his stock message, that we won’t send our children to war without telling the American people the truth, is only part of the issue, and doesn’t identify what we’re willing to tell the truth about.  What will trigger those decisions for us, and what will we do differently to ensure that we’re ready?  We have to make those decisions, and we have to agree on them.  We have to be willing to compromise among ourselves, hawks and doves alike.  We can’t simply adopt a war posture and call us safe, nor can we ignore the real threats.  We have to answer the question not just of what we will do to protect America, but how we will do it.

In the short term, we keep setting ourselves up for long-term failure by our myopic focus on biography over substance, story over planning.  The latter must underscore and precede the former – not vice versa.

Iraq is becoming our Vietnam, because our party is still fighting old battles – they’re fighting and thinking about today’s wars and tomorrow’s wars, and we bring up Vietnam every time something happens in Iraq, and crow at the top of our lungs every time a Vietnam vet runs for office.  I’m already seeing a tendency to crow loudly whenever an Iraq veteran runs on our side or agrees with us.  Learn this:  Veterans are not sacrosanct, nor are they unassailable!  There are good veterans and bad veterans, smart veterans and stupid veterans.  And all of them carried a gun, ready to kill or be killed.  Their courage is to be admired, not turned into a constant drumbeat of “see, we have guts, too!”

I’m hopeful that our Democracy Alliance will take this on and not try to just be a GOTV tool, or a “framing” factory, but will engage in real and true thinking.  Real planning.  Providing strategies for governance, leadership and security, then strategies for campaigning.  Let’s start thinking about how we’ll lead, and design our frames around that vision, instead of the other way around.

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