About a month ago, George Soros sent me a letter along with a copy of a recent speech he’d delivered offering his views on “America’s Role in the World.” (I’m sure I was one of thousands to get the mailing.) Soros wrote that he was looking for a presidential candidate “who could articulate an alternative vision for America’s role in the world and so far I have found two, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont and Senator John Kerry.”
I thought of Soros’ letter after reading that Kerry’s campaign had blasted Dean’s credentials as potential commander in chief. As Kerry’s communications director, Chris Lehane, put it in attacking the former Vermont Governor’s comment: “No serious candidate for the presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America’s military supremacy.” But who’s talking about eroding US military supremacy? (Maybe Kerry went on the attack because he is stung from being derided for “looking French,” by an unidentified White House official.)
It turns out that the former Vermont governor was quoted on Time.com as saying something eminently reasonable: “We have to take a different approach [to diplomacy]. We won’t always have the strongest military.” Some might consider this an alternative vision. I think it’s just common sense. Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi, said all his candidate was saying was that Bush’s foreign policy will ultimately leave the nation less safe in the war against terrorism by relying too heavily on military force at the expense of diplomacy.
But, my worry is that Dean’s foreign-policy vision isn’t unconventional enough. When I heard him speak a few months ago, he vowed he wouldn’t touch the defense budget. If Dean wanted to lay out a credible and progressive security policy he could counter Kerry’s attack by noting that the current US defense budget of $400 billion is larger than those of the next fifteen nations in the world combined. He could make the case that unless the Democrats confront the waste in Bush’s defense budget (and his reckless tax cut), they will have no money for concrete gains in healthcare, education and the other domestic issues they claim to champion–even if they do win the White House or Congress.
So hell, why doesn’t Dean make the case for spending five times more on weapons and the armed forces than the rest of the world combined? Or ten? We’ll still have the strongest military for decades to come. Right now, the US has more people without healthcare than any other advanced industrial country. Why not make sensible cuts in the defense budget and let America start competing to be number one in education, employment, housing, literacy, life-expectancy and child health standards? Do the math: Cut one “upgraded” Abrams Tank and we have the money to enroll 1,100 underprivIeged children in (recently defunded) Head Start programs; Cut the Army Comanche Helicopter program and Navy Joint standoff weapons and we can build housing for 600,000 homeless families; Reduce the nuclear arsenal to 1,000 warheads–more than enough to destroy all our potential enemies–and cancel three cold war weapons programs, the F-2 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey aircraft and the new attack submarine, and we can reduce all classes nationwide in the first, second and third grades to fifteen students total.
Yes, the Democrats need to counter the (wrongheaded) view that they are “softer” on defense than the Republicans. (Instead they continue to abet it by trying to punt in favor of domestic issues.) And there is a real opportunity–after Iraq–to lay out a credible alternative security policy that deals effectively with the dangers of a post-Sept. 11 world–from stateless terrorism to the spread of weapons of mass destruction. After all, it’s becoming clearer that we may be the most powerful military might in world history, but preemptive war, unilerateralism and a $400 billion defense budget aren’t creating a safer, secure, more democratic, or more prosperous planet.
Shouldn’t presidential candidates show some boldness? The way to start is by being honest and saying that America can’t continue to increase military spending and still deliver a credible domestic agenda for working Americans.
If Dean wants to look tough while talking common sense (and maybe securing Soros’ potentially valuable support), he might take a page out of a true Republican war heroes’ playbook? Listen to Dwight Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”