Last week, when key findings of the National Intelligence Estimate were released reporting that al Qaeda was thriving, Democratic candidates seized on the opportunity to declare President Bush’s strategy for fighting terrorism a dismal failure.
John Edwards fired out a statement calling the NIE “proof positive that George Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’ Doctrine is more of a bumper sticker than a strategy to eliminate terrorism.” He added that “the next president will need a bold new strategy that will attack the root causes of terrorism, rather than wait for the problem to get worse.”
Not to be left out of the party, Barack Obama declared: “It is deeply troubling that more that [sic] nearly six years after 9/11, al Qaeda maintains a safe haven, an intact leadership, and the capability to plan further attacks. It is time to act to correct those mistakes, and the first step is to get out of Iraq, because you can’t win a war when you’re on the wrong battlefield.”
The release did not include a second step — i.e. a part about how Obama proposes to eliminate terrorist groups, or to pursue them in Afghanistan and Pakistan once U.S. troops leave Iraq.
For several years, Democrats have accused the Bush administration of using the War on Terror as a pretext for invading Iraq. Now, Democrats are using withdrawal from Iraq as a pretext for abandoning the War on Terror.
While leading Democrats make a lot of noise arguing that leaving Iraq is a necessary precondition to fight the “real” War on Terror, they are rather quiet when it comes to explaining how they would actually go about fighting al Qaeda once they extricate us from Iraq.
The American Spectator placed a series of calls to the campaigns of Obama, Edwards, and Hillary Clinton to ask what their strategies were for fighting terrorism once U.S. troops leave Iraq, and what they think we should do about Pakistan now that the NIE said al Qaeda leaders were based there. The press offices of the campaigns did not answer multiple requests for such information.
To the extent that Democrats have discussed fighting terrorism, their plans have been gathering dust while their speeches, debate appearances, and town hall meetings are dominated by other matters, because the primary voters they are competing for simply do not think that the threat of terrorism is a big deal.
Rudy Giuliani has made an issue out of the fact that the phrase “Islamic terrorist” has not been used in any of the Democratic debates. But Giuliani is expecting far too much from the Democrats. If you were to drop his modifier and scour the transcript of Monday’s YouTube debate, you would not even find the word “terrorist” mentioned either by the candidates or the citizen questioners.
The issue of terrorism did come up if you define it more broadly, but once again it was only in the context of withdrawal from Iraq. At one point during the debate, Obama said one of the reasons he was against the Iraq War all along was that “it would distract us from the War on Terror.” And Clinton, explaining her opposition to sending ground forces into Darfur, said, “We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing in Iraq, where our troops are stretched thin, and Afghanistan, where we’re losing the fight to al Qaeda and bin Laden.”
The issues section of Clinton’s website lists ten topics, including “Strengthening the Middle Class,” “Providing Affordable and Accessible Healthcare,” “Supporting Parents and Caring for Children,” and, of course, “Ending the War in Iraq.”
While fighting terrorism is not important enough to the Clinton campaign to earn its own category, the issue of terrorism does get mentioned in a section called “Restoring America’s Standing in the World,” but only in it’s standard Democratic context:
Senator Clinton takes very seriously the threats we face from terrorism. She believes President Bush’s singular focus on Iraq has distracted him from waging the war on terror effectively and emboldened our enemies. As president, she will be tough and smart in combating terrorism.
Back in April, Obama delivered an address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in which he outlined his foreign policy proposals. He called for adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines, strengthening global alliances, and using humanitarian assistance to improve conditions in the developing world, thus depriving terrorists of possible recruits. But in his standard stump speech and in appearances before partisan crowds, Obama strikes a different balance. He emphasizes the need to withdraw from Iraq — not to fight the broader War on Terror — but so we can focus on health care and education. And he drew headlines after Monday’s debate by answering affirmatively that he would meet directly “without precondition” with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.
This critique of Democrats should not be taken as an effort to allow President Bush to escape criticism for the situation in Iraq or al Qaeda’s strength in Pakistan. The civilized world is in the early stages of a long-term war against an unprecedented enemy that represents an asymmetrical threat and poses its own unique foreign policy challenges. As it continues, there are some things that our leaders will get right, and other things they will get wrong.
There are legitimate arguments to be made about whether invading Iraq, attempting to democratize the Middle East, or supporting a strong man in Pakistan are smart policies for confronting terrorism. And if there are Democrats who believe that achieving universal health care or investing more in education should be more important issues than fighting terrorism, it is a debate we should be having. But arguing that the U.S. needs to withdraw from Iraq in and of itself is not a substitute for an actual policy for fighting terrorism. It’s just a dodge.
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