Late in 2000, with one eye on the presidential campaign and the other on history, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger called a group of staffers into his office. He wanted to give a major speech laying out the essence of the Clinton administration’s national security doctrine and the challenge of transformation that lay ahead. We had a good story to tell, he said. Though the administration had not garnered high marks for security savvy in its early years, we had, as they say, grown in office. In the last five years, we had fought–and won–two wars under trying circumstances, deploying cutting-edge weaponry in Bosnia and Kosovo. We had not merely held NATO together but boosted its size and sense of purpose. We had stitched together a new web of agreements and alliances to constrain potential enemies and control weapons of mass destruction. We had seen the future of war: smaller-scale, higher-tech, faster and more diffuse. Now Berger wanted to formalize our thinking about the next challenge: modernizing the military, and American thinking about the military, to meet the new threats.

It would have been a great speech, and this former speechwriter has a file of drafts six inches thick to prove it. But Berger never gave it. White House staff convened meetings, prepared papers, and debated drafts with Berger, from whom we had full interest and engagement (the kind that drives speechwriters to hide under the desk). What we lacked was the kind of intense policy debate that usually characterizes White House life. No fevered arguments among staffers and Cabinet officials, just prolonged discussions agonizing over how best to present our record. Through the next month, while the Berger draft gathered dust on my desk, I wrote speeches on welfare, trade with China, women in American history, and why Middle East politics are like golf. Meanwhile, the security speech-that-never-was became an office joke. As quickly as Berger would slot it into his schedule, something else would knock it out. None of the White House political staff took any interest in it. Eyes didn’t just glaze over; they rolled when I mentioned it. Why did I want to work on something so dull, when I could be writing about the budget battle?

In recent months, I’ve been thinking a lot about that speech and the indifference to military matters that killed it. As the debate over Iraq unfolded, I was dismayed, like most Democrats, to watch the Bush administration hawks nearly destroy the trust of our allies, whom we desperately need in our fight against al Qaeda, by pushing militarily insane plans to overthrow Saddam’s regime unilaterally. Nor could I shake the suspicion that the White House timed the drumbeat to influence the November elections. But I was equally dismayed at the feckless, equivocal way in which the Democrats handled the debate. For months, they contented themselves with asking “tough questions” about the invasion plans–clearly hoping the whole issue would go away so that they could get back to talking about the economy. But it didn’t go away. In the end, Bush won plaudits for shifting (apparently) to an approach that emphasized the need for U.N. approval and the involvement of our allies–one more in line with Democratic thinking. But Democrats didn’t lead Bush to that position. They were instead dragged to it, and looked weak and craven as a result.

Since then, there’s been plenty of hand-wringing among the leadership and rank-and-file Democrats about how politically inept the party appeared in the face of Bush’s saber rattling. But that’s the problem. Democrats are in this position precisely because we respond to matters of war politically, tactically. We worry about how to position ourselves so as not to look weak, rather than thinking through realistic, sensible Democratic principles on how and when to employ military force, and arguing particular cases, such as Iraq, from those principles. There are a lot of reasons for this failure, including the long-time split within the party between hawks and doves. But we will never resolve that split, nor regain credibility with voters on national security, until we learn to think straight about war. And we will never learn to think straight about war until this generation of professional Democrats overcomes its ignorance of and indifference to military affairs.

The reasons for this apathy aren’t hard to discern. Many Democrats who came of age during the Vietnam War retain a gut-level distrust of the military. Younger staffers, who may not carry the same psychological baggage, have few mentors urging them toward military or security issues. I speak from experience: My main qualification for my first Washington job–covering European security for Congress–was that I could locate the Warsaw Pact countries on a map and correctly identify the acronyms of the relevant international organizations.

But lack of expertise is only a symptom. The malady is an irresponsible lack of interest. The issues that drive most contemporary Democrats into politics are reproductive rights, health care, fiscal policy, or poverty, not national security. Even those young Democrats who are interested in foreign affairs tend to be drawn to “soft” subjects such as debt relief and human rights. Aspiring foreign policy wonks will often get pulled into military affairs by way of, say, their work on demining. But when these young people visualize exciting jobs in the next Democratic administration, they think State Department, not Pentagon.

This lack of interest feeds a vicious cycle of stereotyping. A friend of mine, a foreign policy aide to a Democratic senator, tells this story: A young Democratic Hill staffer calls an officer at the Pentagon with an innocuous question about a potential base closing, but telegraphs his total ignorance of the subject. The officer, already suspicious of Hill staffers, reads the ignorance as disrespect and answers with barely concealed impatience. The staffer takes this as confirmation that the military is full of reactionary jerks.

Such mutual distrust is part of the larger post-Vietnam political dynamic. Just as GOP operatives have little incentive to focus on race and inner-city issues because such activism seldom wins the party votes, Democrats feel little pressure from core supporters to think seriously about military issues. This doesn’t mean that most Democrats are anti-military, any more than most Republicans are racist. But it does mean that Democrats have little institutional credibility on security issues–same with Republicans on race. Recognizing its vulnerability, each side gets truculent rather than sensibly responsive when confronted by the issues.

But there’s a difference. In a jittery post-9/11 world, national security will overshadow every other issue in the public consciousness–racial equality, healthcare, or a dozen others that Democrats consider their strength. A party that comes across as unserious about national security is permanently vulnerable, no matter how compelling its vision of domestic policy.

This partly explains why President Bush recently accused Democrats of not caring about the country’s security–and why Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle reacted so furiously. The accusation was a bit rich, coming from an administration run largely by men who had ducked service in Vietnam. When it comes to military service, Democratic lawmakers have nothing to be embarrassed about; of the Senate’s 38 veterans, 17 are Democrats (including Daschle). Still, one indication that Democratic lawmakers spend relatively less time focused on military affairs is the people they hire: Two-thirds of veterans on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff are Republicans.

Of course, numerous seasoned Democrats have experience grappling with national security issues. Some are staffers on key Hill committees, others former appointees at the Clinton Pentagon and National Security Council who now work at think tanks, law firms, and universities. But they tend to be hived off from the larger community of professional Democrats. The two subcultures regard each other with some suspicion–as I learned when I moved from one to the other. The larger Democratic community views the foreign and defense policy types as naive, verbose elitists ignorant of the realities of American politics. In turn, the experts readily view professional Democrats as unprincipled hacks or uninformed rubes.

By the same token, not every Republican staffer or politician is a defense strategy buff. Many GOP policies are outdated, poorly thought out, or just plain wrong. But Republicans know that national security is inherently favorable political terrain for them. Thus, even in the absence of interest or expertise, they’ll learn enough about a given issue to score political points and put Democrats on the defensive. Given this reality, Democrats can’t afford to be simply as knowledgeable and serious about national security issues as their Republican counterparts. They have to be more so: willing not only to be as tough, but more shrewd.

The problem of being the more liberal party and also being credible on national security is neither new nor easy to solve. What made the Cold War liberalism of the FDR-Truman-Kennedy years such a potent and enduring force, after all, was its internal tensions: the mix of support for international law, formal alliances, and hard-nosed realism. Even today, public polling suggests that Americans do favor Democratic multilateralism. But they also want to see leaders who look comfortable with maintaining and, more importantly, using America’s military might.

After Vietnam, the old Cold War liberalism no longer seemed credible to the party’s core and to many of its leaders. Many Democratic officeholders and operatives responded by focusing on those foreign policy issues that they and their base were comfortable with, such as human rights and arms control, while others shied away from international policy altogether and focused on domestic issues. At the same time, most Democrats understood that a reputation for being “soft” on defense issues was a serious political liability. But instead of grappling with the substance of war and national security, Democrats began to approach their vulnerability as a problem of tactics and political positioning.

Congressional Democrats did produce centers of national security thinking, from Cold War liberals like Scoop Jackson to conservative southern Democrats trying to reassert their standing within the national party to the inoculating presence of liberals Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Most importantly, by the mid-1980s leading Democrats like Gary Hart and Sam Nunn were introducing some of the most innovative ideas on military reform of anyone in Congress. The end of the Cold War, then, should have helped heal the hawk/dove divide and given Democrats a fresh start on security. But events got in the way. The Cold War liberals were dying off. The southerners were losing elections. Influential military theorists like Hart and Nunn, whose words commanded respect on both sides of the aisle, left the Senate. And most importantly, the 1990 Gulf War debate re-opened old wounds–and taught the party some misguided lessons.

Though the debate over the 1990 Iraq resolution was more vigorous than the one this fall, Democrats were not any better prepared to wage it. At the time, I was a young staffer detached from my Europe duties to write a Democratic senator’s Gulf War floor statement. I considered pointing out that I knew little about the Gulf and less about modern warfare, but changed my mind–there didn’t seem to be anyone around our office who knew any more than I did. When I worked up the courage to ask which position we were taking, the response came back: “Start writing, and we’ll tell you later when we decide.”

Democrats drew two lessons from that debate, the paralyzing consequences of which became all too apparent this fall: first, that how you vote is more important than whether you have any coherent ideas about the problem; and second, that the party can brush past its failure on national security matters by stressing innovative domestic policies. After all, the president who won the Gulf War lost reelection to a candidate whose message was “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Indeed, Bill Clinton came to the White House in part by explicitly rejecting his predecessor’s focus on international affairs. But that was only possible thanks to the economic downturn of the early 1990s and the recent peaceful end of the Cold War. Soon enough, the new administration’s relative unpreparedness on foreign affairs started to show. The administration began to stumble, notably on gays in the military and Somalia. To be sure, some of these troubles were the unavoidable result of managing foreign affairs in the post-Cold War chaos–when the closest anyone came to articulating a coherent theory of force was Lawrence Eagleburger’s infamous dictum on Bosnia, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” But others were the product of a White House whose attention to international affairs was sporadic, inexpert, and reactive.

The tide began to turn in 1995 when, after years of equivocation, the Clinton administration decided to put some muscle behind its mouth in the Balkans. The mix of NATO air strikes, tough negotiating tactics and cold-blooded acquiescence to the Croatian reconquest of the Krajina wasn’t pretty. When the Kosovo campaign unfolded a few years later, it too was messy. But U.S. intervention turned the tide against Balkan adventurism and, just as important, united NATO behind a mission that married the maintenance of international law and human rights to hardheaded geopolitics. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans slid into an increasingly mindless isolationism. And public ratings of Democratic competence in handling the nation’s foreign affairs got as close to Republican levels as they have ever been.

Yet little of this momentum survived the end of the Clinton administration, for two distinct but interrelated reasons. First, the logic behind Clinton’s resort to force never gelled into a doctrine that could be succinctly expressed, broadly supported, and used to guide future conflicts. There was always too much going on in the “now;” and we were not always able to be honest with ourselves about what fell within such a doctrine and what goals, however noble, politics and resources dictated we leave out.

In hindsight, the underlying logic looks clearer: call it “advanced democracy internationalism.” The United States would work when possible through the United Nations but in reality with alliances such as NATO to police minimum standards of international conduct. It would use force if necessary, but only in tandem with diplomacy, and largely, even exclusively, against threats to advanced democracies and the systems of laws and alliances that undergird them (with the hope of extending those laws and alliances to encompass and protect more and more countries). Thus, while the 1990s saw many bloody conflicts around the globe, from Africa to the Caucasus, the United States went to war only in the Balkans, because that conflict threatened the integrity of our most important security alliance, NATO.

But such a doctrine was never articulated. And that stems from the second reason for the loss of momentum after 2000. Without the White House, the Democrats had no institutional or organized way to think through national security issues. The Georgetown salons–like those Madeleine Albright held to nurture Democratic foreign policy in the dark days of the 1980s–had dissolved. And although plenty of Democrats populate foreign policy think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Brookings Institution, such above-the-fray outfits are no match for aggressively conservative institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The latter two are known today as the places where the current Bush hawks, formerly members of the Reagan and Bush I administrations, sharpened their critical knives during the 1990s. Unlike their mainstream equivalents, the national security programs at Heritage and AEI exist not so much to contribute ideas to the public square as to influence very specific policies and legislation on defense. Democrats have no equivalent. As Evelyn Farkas, a Democratic staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee, puts it, “Part of the reason we don’t have a clear message on defense is that we don’t have a place where people argue and create one for us.”

Nor do Democrats have subsidized journals of opinion like The Weekly Standard or The National Interest devoted to hashing out serious partisan ideas about defense and foreign policy. Other than Thomas Friedman (and perhaps Fareed Zakaria), there are no prominent left-of-center policy intellectuals in the mold of William Kristol and Robert Kagan. Here, too, the root of the problem is in the general indifference to military affairs among Democrats and their donors. When Michele Flournoy, a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction now at CSIS, tried to obtain funding for defense research, she found that foundations comfortable giving to Democrats generally are less comfortable supporting specifically military projects, while foundations which like to fund hardcore defense work tend to fund Republicans. “As a pro-defense Democrat, I’m seen as a bit of an odd duck,” she says. “Foundations tend to see me as coming from the other side.’” Former State Department staffer Tim Bergreen has spent much of the past year working to set up a think tank with a Democratic angle on military policy, without much success. At one point, the chief of staff to a top House Democrat told him “those aren’t the issues that interest my boss.” Hill staffer Lorelei Kelly reports that, when funding for the peacekeeping program at the Army War College came under attack, it was easier to get support from a Quaker pacifist group than from Democratic House members.

Such infrastructure, along with a sensible doctrine of force with which non-specialists could come to terms, would have gone a long way toward helping Democrats think through their responses to the post-9/11 world. Among other things, they might have noticed sooner the big mistake the Bush administration was making by not bringing NATO into the latter stages of the Afghan campaign–a mistake that even many Bush officials now recognize. Most importantly, the Democrats might have steered themselves toward a sounder alternative to the Bush hawks’ policies on Iraq. For months, these hawks had sought a military overthrow of the Iraqi regime through some mix of American military and domestic insurrectionary forces, openly ignoring the United Nations and spurning NATO involvement. As the accepted phrase has it, they wanted to go it alone.

In late August and early September, the administration began grudgingly to admit–to itself, if not to the public–that its preferred strategy was unsound. It wasn’t the Democrats who forced the hawks to rethink, however, but a combination of pressure from within by multilateralists like Colin Powell and pressure from outside by establishment Republican critics like Brent Scowcroft. Slowly it dawned on the White House that the United States couldn’ hope to invade Iraq alone. As Bush reframed the debate around a demand for absolute Iraqi compliance with all U.N. Security Council resolutions, backed by the threat of devastating force, public and elite opinion slowly shifted in the president’s direction.

Democrats could and should have called loudly for such a U.N.-based policy months earlier. Instead, most hid behind “tough questions” without offering a credible alternative. Other Democrats, particularly those with presidential ambitions, adopted a different party line–the Republicans’.

The irony is that a policy of using the threat of U.S. military power to enforce U.N. mandates in Iraq is one that both the hawks and at least some of the doves in the Democratic Party could have agreed on. Had they taken that position last spring–or even during the summer–Democrats might have helped shift the debate in a more sensible direction earlier, and served the country by limiting the negative international fallout from the hawks’ unilateralism. They also might have helped themselves politically: When the president shifted his positions in September, it would have been seen, rightly, as a victory for the Democrats. Instead, by the time Bush swung towards a multilateral/U.N. approach to Iraq, most Democrats found the new position difficult to disagree with, but almost impossible to take credit for–John Kerry’s valiant efforts on the Senate floor notwithstanding.

Now that the Iraq vote is past, Democrats will be tempted, as Tom Daschle has said, to “move on.” But that would be a big mistake if it means continuing to treat defense issues like tests they can squeak through with Cliff’s Notes. With so many real security threats out there, and so many half-baked conservative plans being hatched to counter them, the country needs Democrats back in the security game in a serious way.

Take China. Conservative hawks, noting China’s rapid drive to modernize its military, insist that the Beijing leadership is aiming to reassert control over Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, and then to end U.S. dominance in East Asia. Democrats and most China specialists, however, note that, whatever their intentions, the Chinese simply won’t have the capability to challenge the United States for at least 15 to 20 years. But that doesn’t mean Democrats shouldn’t promote policies consistent with Democratic values that would give China extra reason to pause before acting aggressively–for instance, by urging Japan to commit forces outside Japanese waters for collective defense (see “Axis of Good,” by Joshua Kurlantzick, July/August).

Or take the issue that got me started, transforming the military to meet 21st-century challenges. Donald Rumsfeld, the current secretary of defense, has begun an effort to think this through–guided, of course, by his very hawkish views. But Rumsfeld’s exercise is only the first sally in what is going to be a very difficult debate. Money for technology or money for troops? Update weaponry gradually, or skip a generation and modernize in one fell swoop? Democrats outside the field are as unprepared for these debates as they were on Iraq.

Getting Democrats to take defense issues seriously will not be easy; it means changing the party’s basic mode of thinking. But it can be done. After all, it took less than a decade for Democrats to go from being the party of deficits to being the party more trusted for fiscal responsibility. This transformation happened because enough Democrats got tired of losing elections and did the hard work of crafting innovative and effective ideas in areas like crime and economic stewardship that the party had previously ceded to Republicans. National defense is perhaps the last big area where Democrats have not really done this. And in a time of war, it’s the one area where they can’t afford not to.

Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is a Michigan-based consultant and writer.

Heather Hurlburt, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, is a Michigan-based consultant and writer.

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Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America and has worked in foreign policy and communications roles at the White House and the State Department, and on Capitol Hill.