Center for American Progress

Do Democrats Have a Better National Security Game Plan?

Do Democrats Have a Better National Security Game Plan?

In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower challenged Sen. Robert Taft (R-OH) for the Republican presidential nomination primarily because of the senator's unilateralism. Among other things Taft refused to endorse American membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Eisenhower's multilateral approach to world affairs held sway in the Republican Party through the administration of George H.W. Bush. This was the Republican Party I was privileged to serve in the 1980s.

Unfortunately George W. Bush has returned the Republican party to the unilateralism of Taft. Whereas the six Republican presidents from Eisenhower to the elder Bush lived by the motto "multilateral if we can, unilateral only if we must," the current president has reversed that approach.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), has correctly noted that the Bush administration has abandoned the fundamental tenants that have guided our foreign policy for more than half a century: belief in collective security and alliances, respect for international institutions and international law, multilateral engagement, and the use of force not as a first option but truly as a last resort. It is the Democratic Party that now carries on the Eisenhower legacy and is therefore much better equipped to protect our National Security than the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld axis that currently dominates the Republican Party.

Bush's extreme unilateralism cannot be rationalized as a reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Well before that horrible day, Bush angered our allies by letting them know that he would not be bound by such multilateral arrangements as the Kyoto protocol on global warming, the biological weapons convention, the International Criminal Court, the ABM Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. His message to the rest of the world, from his first day in office, was you need us more than we need you.

The September 11 attacks resulted in an outpouring of sympathy toward the United States. Even the French daily Le Monde declared, "We are all Americans now." But, the Bush administration squandered that historic moment and became even more arrogantly unilateral by telling the rest of the world that "you are either with us or against us" and embracing a national security strategy that falls far short of reducing the risk to our national security that comes from the combination of terrorists with a global reach, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush strategy is built upon three pillars: the right of the United States to take unilateral preemptive military action; the need to maintain global primacy; and the need to impose democracy throughout the world. It falls short on at least five counts.

First, it has diverted our forces and energies from the primary threats to our security by conflating our enemies into a single monolithic threat and threatening pre-emptive action against all of them. Moreover, it has given rogue regimes precisely the justification they need to develop their own nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capabilities. In effect, the Bush doctrine legitimizes their disregard for international norms under the guise of defensive measures. This is true of North Korea, which resumed reprocessing of plutonium after the Bush administration included it in its rhetorical "axis of evil."

Second, the administration has inconsistently implemented its preventive war strategy and has created opportunities for our enemies. The administration justified a preventative war against the Iraqi regime in large part by claiming that it was dangerously close to acquiring nuclear weapons. We now know this not to be true. Yet, when it comes to the rogue regime in North Korea, the Bush administration has pursued an inconsistent course on both military and diplomatic fronts that has given North Korea the time to continue developing nuclear weapons.

Third, there is a mismatch between the administration's policies and the resources it has devoted to carrying them out. The U.S. Army, which is the administration's primary instrument for waging preventive war against rogue regimes, is not large enough to carry out these tasks. To paraphrase recently retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, the administration is trying to implement a 12-division strategy with a 10-division army. In addition the administration has not provided adequate funding for programs like the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which secures or destroys nuclear, chemical, biological weapons, materials and technologies, or to the local police, fire and emergency medical agencies, the first responders in dealing with another attack on the homeland.

Fourth, by attempting to maintain military superiority and trying to impose democracy and free markets throughout the world, our country has overextended itself and taken on the trappings of an empire. President Bush claims that we do not have imperial ambitions, but our actions abroad have already unleashed a global anti-American backlash – especially in the Islamic world – that makes it ever more difficult to protect our people at home and abroad. Ironically while our power is at its historic zenith, our global standing is at its nadir.

At the same time we are on the verge of losing track of all or most important security priorities and suffering battle fatigue at home. Support among the American people for staying the course is already declining. The situation in Iraq is very similar to the war in Vietnam, when successive American presidents committed to national blood and treasure to a peripheral role follows that was not essential to the overarching strategic goal of containing Soviet Communist expansion.

Fifth, by emphasizing military action as our primary strategic weapon, the Bush administration gives short shrift to the threats to our national security posed by global poverty, growing international crime and the increasing isolation of the United States from like minded states. Pursuing a unilateral foreign policy has poisoned our relations abroad and increased the burden on our military and taxpayers. The result: more American deaths in Iraq since the president proclaimed mission accomplished then during active combat; a $120 billion bill for hardworking Americans that will likely double over the next two years; and much less global influence as we seek help in combating threats that know no borders.

It is not surprising that Kerry labeled this foreign policy as the most inept, reckless, arrogant, and ideological in American history. But, when leading Republicans like Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and former national security advisers like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger express similar sentiments, Americans should be worried and seek a different policy. Hagel has argued that our interests are best served through alliances and consensus. Scowcroft has warned that we cannot win the war on terrorism without enthusiastic international cooperation and Kissinger has noted that it is not in our national interest to establish pre-emption as a universal principle. Democrats do advocate a different national security strategy – one based on reality, not ideology and false illusions. It agrees that terrorists with a global reach (as opposed to all terrorists), rogue states, nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and materials are the most serious threats to U.S. security and the American way of life. But it acknowledges that we cannot deal with these threats effectively in all places and every time through the unilateral use of U.S. military force. It is based on five principles.

First, focus on the primary threat to the security of the United States. The threat today his terrorists with a global reach, like al Qaeda and its affiliates. While the United States must combat global terrorism that threatens U.S. interests, the security of the United States is not threatened equally by all terrorists or tyrants. Therefore, the United States must give priority to minimizing the threat from al Qaeda, and prevent them from obtaining nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, materials and technologies.

Second, ensure that our armed forces and first responders are strong enough to carry out their missions. Rather than wasting money on such cold war era weapons as the F-22, V-22, and Virginia class submarines, or spending more than $10 billion to deploy an untested national missile defense system and developing a new nuclear weapon, the United States must focus on the people who fight our battles at home and abroad. We need an active duty and reserve army that has two more divisions and is equipped to carry out multiple tasks in many theaters across the globe and police, fire, and medical personnel properly equipped and trained for their duties at home.

Third, use and adequately fund every weapon at our arsenal – diplomatic, economic, technological and military. Force as the centerpiece of a national security strategy will not by itself be able to address all transnational threats. The United States must emphasize diplomatic and economic cooperation – from strengthening treaty regimes to increasing development assistance. We need to remain the strongest military power on Earth, but we should also lead and adequately fund collective efforts to gather intelligence on threats that extend beyond orders; prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and confront health, humanitarian, environmental and other catastrophes that can lead to failed states.

Fourth, work with allies and international institutions to best advance our national interests. This does not mean giving other nations a veto over Americas pursuit of its security nor does it naively hold that the national interests of others can always be set aside to achieve consensus in favor of U.S. interests and values. But alliances provide a vital framework to achieve a shared perception of common threads and a shared responsibility for the cost of action. They enhance rather than detract from our ability to succeed in today's complex threat environment.

Fifth, employ U.S. power and technology to strengthen these norms and institutions designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, including the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, the biological and chemical weapons convention, the comprehensive test ban treaty, and the IAEA, ways we rely on to verify that countries like Iran and Libya are meeting of their treaty obligations. At the same time, existing cooperative security agreements, such as NATO should be further adapted to deal with the new threat environment.

This cooperative multilateral democratic approach will make this nation more secure than the arrogant, narrow unilateralism of the Bush administration, which is not in keeping with the traditions of this country or the Republican Party.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow