Column: UnderCurrents: Progressives Need to Bone Up on Defense Policy, By: J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Friday February 10, 2006

As expected—or feared, depending on your point of view—Pennsylvania Congressmember John Murtha is rapidly becoming one of the Democratic Party’s de facto spokespersons on defense policy. That may be a good thing for centrist Democrats who don’t want to get beat by our Republican friends with the “soft on defense” stick in another election. But where does it leave progressives? 

Mr. Murtha, you may remember, was the Congressmember who introduced a resolution last November calling for immediate U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, labeling the war “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion” and declaring that “the U.S. can not accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring them home.”  

Coming from a decorated Marine combat veteran of the Korea and Vietnam era and a representative who has consistently supported the military, those words jolted the Bush administration, and vaulted the respected—but obscure—Congressmember into national leadership. 

It’s not far-fetched to see him moving over from the House Appropriations Committee to a leading role—maybe the leading role—on the House Armed Services Committee should the Democrats retake control of Congress or wielding considerable influence on defense matters should a Democrat win the White House in 2008. 

And so, on the off chance that his proposals may one day end up being policy, we ought to look beyond Mr. Murtha’s call for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq—which won him well-deserved standing ovations on the left—and see just where he wants to redeploy those troops, and what he wants to do with them when they get there. 

In a letter written earlier this month to President Bush, Mr. Murtha called for a “strategy for victory against global terrorism,” suggesting that in conjunction with a troop withdrawal from Iraq, the president should consider “stationing a mobile force outside of the country.” Where such a “mobile force” would be stationed, and what would be its purpose, is left unclear. But in a letter written to Congressional colleagues last November explaining his troop withdrawal proposal Mr. Murtha gave some hints, stating that the military front of the War on Terror [his capital letters] “should be focused on where the leadership and main strength of Al Qaeda and related organizations exist. To me [Mr. Murtha continues], that is clearly in the area of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia…” 

Does that mean rather than invasion-and-occupation scenarios, we would be launching cross-border military raids from bases in, say, Turkey, into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia or, in the alternative, continuing the Bush policy of launching missiles in villages whenever we suspect an Al Qaeda presence? I don’t know, partly because I could not find anything more specific in Mr. Murtha’s proposals. 

In any event, in the “second and perhaps most important ‘front’ in the War on Terror” as he describes it, Mr. Murtha advocates a “long-term battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. … It is a battle we should be able to win resoundingly because we share so many values with common Muslims and stand for the principles of freedom and equality.” Aside from the disturbing echo of Lyndon Johnson’s “winning the hearts and minds” policy in Vietnam (remember how hard we had to fight against that one), this proposal also remains vague. To which values does Mr. Murtha refer, and how would he suggest go about demonstrating to our Muslim friends that we share them? The devil is in the details. 

But at least the Pennsylvania Congressmember is suggesting a strategy. 

While progressives—myself included—have taken great delight in pointing out the fumbles of the Bush administration during the so-called “war on terror” from Tikrit to Internet wiretapping, we have been mostly silent on what we, ourselves, would do in defense of this country if we had national power in our own hands. 

This has mostly to do with the natural breeding grounds for progressive thought in America, which is most definitely not in the average defense think tank. Most progressives cut their eye teeth on environmental activism or women’s or minority rights issues, and can talk for days on how we would improve the education system. Progressive knowledge on military matters, however, leans heavily toward the question of how to keep Marine recruiters off campus. 

This leads to a couple of results, both of them bad. 

First, it strengthens the hands of those in this country—the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys and the Wolfowitzs—who were all too eager to unleash the dogs of war in the sands of Iraq, if only to demonstrate that America can’t be kicked around any more, and to wash what they believe is the stench of the Vietnam withdrawal from the national body. 

Second, because defense-challenged progressives are such an integral part of the Democratic Party, progressive failure to craft and articulate a defense policy of our own creates an opening for our Republican friends to say that Democrats can’t be trusted on defense and national security issues. This causes centrist Democrats to scramble around to prove that they are not soft on defense—the Kerrys and the Hillary Clintons come immediately to mind—thus strengthening the hand of those in this country who are eager … well, just refer back to bad result No. 1. 

What’s the solution to this dilemma for progressives? 

First and foremost, while the political battle to end the war in Iraq is still going on, progressives need to answer the question: how would we defend the country if we were in charge? Specifics are in order. What would we do, for example, to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil along the line of, say, the 9/11 attacks? 

What would our response be if such an attack took place, and we could identify the base location of the attackers? Would we launch an invasion of the suspected country, as the Bush administration did in Afghanistan? What would we do if faced with the impending nuclearization of a country such as Iran? What would we do about nuclear weapons already existing in countries around the world? North Korea? China? Pakistan? Israel? France and England? The United States? Ask everyone to throw them in the ocean? Or let everyone keep them in place in the old mutually-assured deterrence scheme? 

And the larger question: what is the best balance between America’s economic and military policy in order to keep us relatively prosperous and relatively safe? Can we do that while bringing the rest of the world up with us? Is that the best defense policy and, if so, how do we suggest it would be managed in the real world, while keeping at bay those people who are still pissed with us about how we managed the world in the old days? 

We often hear it said, these days, that U.S. military forces are being stretched thin by the war in Iraq. Mr. Murtha uses the term “overstretched” in a column which included his recent letter to President Bush. But when Mr. Murtha uses such a term, he has specific numbers in mind, which is why people listen to him when he gives opinions. 

How many divisions the country must keep on hand in order to fight a two-front war, for example. How long would it take to redeploy troops stationed in the European theater to an African or Asian or Middle Eastern battleground, and how many carriers would it take to redeploy them. How long should the average soldier/sailor’s term be in combat conditions before they are cycled out for rest and refitting. How long should they stay out before being sent back in to battle. How many times should they go into battle. Before you can even enter that discussion, you have to start with simpler questions. How many carriers are in a battle group? How many soldiers are in a division? A company? A squad? I don’t have any idea. And I suspect, neither do most of my progressive friends. 

Until more of us do, progressives are going to be mostly on the sidelines during the coming debates over United States defense policy, forcing the issue, certainly, but never being able to define it. The real redeployment needed here is for progressives to get into the study of national defense. And quickly.?