Despite the change in public attitudes driven by the acceleration of violence and chaos in Iraq, high-ranking Democrats continue to believe that a “tough” approach to national security is their best bet for winning elections. Because of this misconception, their recently released plan for “Real Security” fails to make the decisions needed to produce a smarter, more effective defense policy.

Rather than hedge their bets out of fear of being labeled “soft” on defense, Democrats should distinguish themselves from the Bush Administration by setting a date for withdrawal from Iraq. They should also take a broader view of security, one promoting the notion that the government’s job is to protect its citizens from all major threats, whether they emanate from terrorism, epidemics, natural disasters, environmental degradation or entrenched poverty.

Instead, one of the most touted elements of the Democrats’ new plan is their pledge to “eliminate Osama bin Laden [and] destroy terrorist networks like Al Qaeda.”

This hawkish rhetoric has little chance of generating a successful policy. Al Qaeda is a loosely structured “network of networks” that can operate with or without Osama bin Laden. “Destroying” it is the wrong goal. A more realistic objective would be to render Al Qaeda irrelevant by addressing the political, ideological, economic and security concerns that allow it to attract new recruits. To its credit, the Democrats’ Real Security plan makes reference to these root causes of terrorism. But it contradicts itself by suggesting that Al Qaeda can somehow be wiped out as though it were a traditional military adversary.

One positive plank of the Democrats’ security platform is its commitment to lock up or destroy currently unsecured nuclear bomb-making materials by 2010. This approach, which is probably the most effective way to keep terrorist groups from acquiring the ingredients for a nuclear weapon or “dirty bomb,” would require nearly doubling current funding for this purpose, to $3 billion a year. That amounts to less than two weeks of the current cost of the Bush Administration’s war.

Another sound idea is the pledge to push for energy independence by promoting alternative fuels and greater energy efficiency. The stated goal is to limit our dependence on oil from “unstable regions,” but there is no mention of the most important reason to reduce use of fossil fuels–reducing the impact of global climate change. If the Democrats could articulate an energy investment plan that talks about how soon new technologies can make a difference in reducing our dependence on oil, they would be better positioned to underscore the hypocrisy of George W. Bush’s promise to end America’s “addiction” to oil.

The most striking aspect of the Real Security plan is what it leaves out. There is no talk of reducing the US nuclear arsenal. There is no position taken on whether the Democrats should renounce the use of force against North Korea or Iran. There is no suggestion to cut the military budget, which could reach $600 billion this year once the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are taken into account. There are tens of billions of dollars’ worth of cold war-era relics in the military budget that have no legitimate strategic purpose and are ripe for elimination.

With the 2006 elections looming, it is unlikely that the Democratic leadership will change its official national security strategy in any significant way. But individual candidates can and should offer more progressive alternatives that can prevent conflicts as well as resolve them.