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Letter | March 16, 2020
Our National Security Challenge: An Open Letter to Democrats

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No political party deserves to gain or hold power if it can not provide basic security.

That's why a group of Democratic thinkers and policymakers has addressed an Open Letter to the party.

They challenge Democrats to make winning the war against jihadist extremism the party's first priority.

Sen. Evan Bayh Rep. Jim Cooper Rep. Artur Davis
Rep. Adam B. Schiff Rep. Ellen Tauscher Ronald D. Asmus
James R. Blaker Larry Diamond Philip H. Gordon
Edward Gresser Bob Kerrey Rachel Kleinfeld
Will Marshall Michael McFaul Steven J. Nider
Jeremy Rosner James P. Rubin

Dear Democrats:

Our party faces a host of urgent public challenges. But one overshadows all the rest: defending America against terrorists and the extremist ideology that inspires them.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, we and our allies have dealt crippling blows to al Qaeda. Yet the struggle continues because our real enemy is not any particular gang of terrorists, but rather the jihadist creed that motivates people to commit acts of terror. From Manhattan to Madrid, from Iraq to Indonesia, its adherents have unleashed paroxysms of violence against innocent civilians.

If not significant in military terms, these attacks nonetheless succeed in their main purpose -- sowing terror. Moreover, the level of terror and destruction will rise exponentially if our enemies succeed in getting their hands on nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction. And today's Islamist terrorists could prove more dangerous than our Cold War adversaries because, being stateless, they cannot be deterred by the threat of massive retaliation.

This new danger tests the mettle of the people and parties that aspire to lead America. No political party will gain or hold power -- nor will it deserve to -- if it cannot provide people with a basic sense of security.

The jihadist creed, in its bigotry and intolerance, its sanctification of murder, and its contempt for liberal democracy, bears a sinister resemblance to the totalitarian ideologies of 20th century Europe. Like fascism and communism, it poses a moral challenge to our liberal beliefs and values. Once again, our foes doubt that we will fight and sacrifice for the ideals we profess to live by. Once again, we must prove them wrong. Moral clarity in this fight is essential. The American people will not trust leaders who will not vigorously defend their ideals.

In confronting this new totalitarian threat, Democrats uphold our party's first principles and deepest values: individual liberty and dignity, equal rights and opportunity, freedom of conscience, and democratic self-government. We urge you to make clear to the American people that winning the war on jihadist extremism will be the Democratic Party's first priority this year and every year until the danger recedes.

As Democrats, we are proud that our party led the way in crafting America's resolute response to fascism and communism. Far-sighted Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John Kennedy fashioned a tough-minded internationalism that eventually won the Cold War and stimulated an unprecedented expansion of liberty and democracy throughout the world.

For too many Americans, however, all this is ancient history. In recent decades, the public has shown a consistent tendency to trust Republicans more on matters of defense and security. We believe the confidence gap on national security played a major, even decisive, role in the 2004 election, and now stands as a major obstacle to building a new Democratic majority.

To persuade the public to entrust us with national leadership, Democrats must offer a more compelling vision for making Americans safer. We believe such a vision must incorporate key pillars of the party's internationalist tradition: the willingness to use force to defend our interests and values; support for open trade and a globalizing world economy; and active promotion of individual liberty and democracy around the world. We recognize that these are contentious issues and that some will want to paper over our internal differences to preserve a semblance of party unity. But we believe Democrats should not fear a vigorous, honest debate on national security -- better to wrestle these issues now than on the eve of the 2008 election.

We recognize as well that Iraq remains a difficult issue for Democrats. Most supported the war at first, but were disillusioned by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction as well as the administration's costly and incompetent mismanagement of Iraq after ousting Saddam Hussein. Others opposed the war from the start. Though most of the signers of this letter backed the decision to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, we respect reasoned opponents of our view. And, while we have roundly condemned the Bush administration's mistakes in Iraq, it is essential that partisan enmity not obscure America's vital interest in helping the newly elected Iraqi government succeed.

The Jan. 30 election was a triumph for the decent majority of Iraqis who braved terrorist threats to demonstrate their commitment to reconstruction of a unitary state and to a representative government in Baghdad. It was proof that our efforts in Iraq were neither doomed from the start nor doomed to failure today. But the transitional authority faces monumental tasks: writing a constitution to establish the rule of law and protect minorities; reaching out to disaffected Sunnis and drawing them into the arena of democratic politics; deploying security forces capable of defeating the insurgency; securing regional and international political and economic support; and rebuilding basic public infrastructure.

America's work in Iraq is not yet done. We, therefore, urge you to oppose calls to withdraw troops from Iraq prematurely, before the new Iraqi government is able to consolidate its authority and defend itself against Sunni insurgents and foreign terrorists. This is not the time for casting anxious glances toward the exits. Instead, Democrats should reaffirm our resolve not to leave behind a failed state in Iraq, because to do so would hand our jihadist foes a strategic windfall, swelling terrorist ranks and lending credence to Osama bin Laden's claim that the United States is a paper tiger with no stomach for a protracted fight.

Our determination that America succeed in Iraq in no way constitutes an endorsement of President Bush's policies. On the contrary, the mess in Iraq offers a vivid illustration of a fatal flaw in the Republican approach to national security: a tendency to overestimate what can be accomplished with U.S. military force alone, and to give short shrift to the political, economic, and diplomatic tools at America's disposal.

The Bush administration's ham-fisted diplomacy has alienated old allies, isolated America, and made it harder to orchestrate an international response to the new threats. Its post-conflict blunders in Iraq, including the prisoner abuse scandals, have tarnished America's moral reputation and made Iraq the new training ground for a vicious breed of terrorism. The administration has no coherent plans for checking the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. Its energy policies would prolong rather than lessen America's dangerous dependence on Middle East oil. And it has failed to plug critical gaps in homeland defense.

President Bush's domestic policies contradict and undermine his international policies. Most presidents call for shared sacrifice in times of war, but Mr. Bush's insistence on favoring the wealthy with tax cuts has plunged our government into debt and depleted the resources necessary to wage a more vigorous and effective global campaign against terrorism. Apart from inconvenienced airline passengers, Mr. Bush demands sacrifice from only one group of Americans: the gallant men and women who are fighting and dying for us in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Bush administration has misused and weakened our military. It deployed enough troops in Iraq to win the war, but not enough to secure the peace. It failed to supply our troops with enough body armor and armored vehicles. Our armed forces are stretched dangerously thin: Nine out of 10 active duty Army divisions have been committed to Iraq -- whether they are currently there, preparing to go, or recently returned. Rather than expand the military to meet our new security needs -- not just for combat troops, but also for specialists in post-conflict reconstruction -- the administration continues to extend deployments to Iraq, in effect creating a back-door draft.

In short, the Bush administration's catalogue of national security failures is long and growing. Americans deserve an alternative -- and Democrats should seize the opportunity to give them one.

Our party should champion a stronger U.S. military by pressing for an increase in the active duty strength of the Army and the Marine Corps, for a better mix of active and reserve forces, and for more specialists trained in the stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction operations of the 21st century.

Our party should commit itself to revitalizing America's strategic alliances and building a new and better collective security system -- including a NATO focused intently on terrorism and proliferation, and a reformed and strengthened United Nations -- for the age of global terror.

Our party should demand a serious national commitment to reducing America's dependence on Middle East oil and accelerating the onset of clean energy cars, technologies, and sources.

Our party will not cede to President Bush the high ground of liberal values in foreign policy debates. In fact, Mr. Bush risks discrediting democracy by offering it as a panacea for the Muslim world's ills and by applying it selectively -- for example, to Iraq and the Palestinians but not to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Russia.

Democrats should reclaim their historic role as the party that stands up for individual liberty, human rights, and democracy around the world. To attack the conditions that breed extremist violence, we should call for a broad international campaign to stimulate economic, political, and social reform throughout the greater Middle East. The results of recent elections in countries as different as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and now Iraq show that a tough, principled stand against jihadist extremism can find allies in developing Muslim states as well as advanced democracies around the world.

Ultimately, however, the right national security policies will only take us so far. Americans want to know what is in our hearts, not just in our heads. For them, patriotism and national pride are core cultural values. For too long now, we have let Republicans claim them as their exclusive domain. Now it is time to take them back, by reasserting the Democratic Party's proud tradition of national strength, liberal values, and strong U.S. leadership for collective security.

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