Change in Direction Necessary on National Security

Republicans are running on claims that Democrats cannot be trusted to handle national security, even stooping so low as to attempt to replicate the spirit of the 1964 mushroom cloud ad Johnson used against Barry Goldwater. In yesterday’s column David Broder attempted to look at what Democrats would really do if given a say on national security should they take control of the Senate.

No one speaks more authoritatively for the Democrats on defense and national security issues than Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, both longtime members of the Armed Services Committee. If you want to know what Democratic gains in this midterm election would mean for national security policy, Levin and Reed can provide the answers.

In a conference call with reporters the other day, the two senators outlined the changes in U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iraq that they and their fellow Democrats would like to see. They signal to voters the kind of change a Democratic victory would mean.

In the case of North Korea, Levin called for doing something that President Bush has refused for six years to do — engage directly in talks with representatives of the communist regime.

The Democratic plans sound preferable to a Republican policy which is responsible for a nuclear North Korea after years of successful containment under Clinton. Democrats would also help get out of the quagmire Bush got us into in Iraq:

Implicit in their comments is a belief, based on their firsthand observations, that the current rulers in Baghdad have a different agenda for themselves than the Bush administration’s bland assurances suggest. As Levin put it, “Our only leverage for change is to force the politicians in Iraq to realize we’re not there as their security blanket. When they recognize that reality, they’re more likely to make the necessary compromises on sharing of oil revenues and sharing power. The prospect of losing us as their personal security blanket will focus their minds.”

Reed agreed that unless something is done to change course, three separate violent struggles going on in Iraq (Sunnis vs. Shiites; Shiite factions fighting each other; Sunni insurgents fighting Americans) will probably merge into one massive calamity.

When the senators were asked if a Democratic majority in the House or Senate would force the issue in Iraq by threatening to cut off funds for the war, they quickly ruled out any such action. Levin said that a simple resolution recommending to the president that he set a date to begin redeployment might do the trick.

Other forces could nudge Bush in that direction, he said: the growing concern among senior uniformed officers about the impact of the lengthy Iraq deployment on troop morale and unit readiness; and the post-election report of the special Iraq Study Group, headed by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton.

But after all the debate on Iraq this year, a change in control of even one house of Congress “would have a major impact, a huge motivating force on the president to change course,” Levin said. “More and more Republicans would join with Democrats in trying to get the administration to change course.”

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