No one speaks more authoritatively for the Democrats on defense and national security issues than Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, both longtime members of the Armed Services Committee. If you want to know what Democratic gains in this midterm election would mean for national security policy, Levin and Reed can provide the answers.
In a telephone conference call with reporters the other day, the two senators outlined the changes in U.S. policy toward North Korea and Iraq that they and their fellow Democrats would like to see. They signal to voters the kind of change a Democratic victory would mean.
In the case of North Korea, Levin called for doing something that President Bush has refused for six years to do - engage directly in talks with representatives of the communist regime.
But he put a condition on it, saying such talks should take place only "providing our allies and partners want us to do it," and only as part of an agreed-upon strategy supported by Japan, South Korea, China and Russia.
Reed, who endorsed the idea, said any direct U.S.-North Korea talks would "most likely" take place in the context of the six-power talks, now stalled over Pyongyang's defiance of the United Nations and the regime's testing of a nuclear weapon.
Levin said he believes the other nations in those six-power talks - notably Russia, China, Japan and South Korea - all wish the United States would talk directly with the North Koreans. Our willingness to do so would not be a sign of weakness, he said, but a way of removing an excuse the North Koreans have used to explain their obduracy.
On Iraq, the two Democrats harked back to the amendment that 39 senators supported during a debate earlier this year - an amendment that called for a start on U.S. troop withdrawals within six months, but set no numbers and specified no target date for ending the U.S. military presence.
Reed, who has made many trips to Iraq and returned just weeks ago from his most recent visit, described the "very, very difficult situation" he found there. "We have to begin to work toward redeployment without setting a timetable," he said. "We have to start laying out some red lines for the Iraqis ... give them some clear goals we want them to achieve." They need to set plans for disarming militias, conducting elections at the provincial level and spending some of the funds being hoarded in Baghdad on better services for the people, he said.
Implicit in their comments is a belief, based on their firsthand observations, that the present rulers in Baghdad have a different agenda for themselves than the Bush administration's bland assurances suggest. As Levin put it, "Our only leverage for change is to force the politicians in Iraq to realize we're not there as their security blanket. When they recognize that reality, they're more likely to make the necessary compromises on sharing of oil revenues and sharing power. The prospect of losing us as their personal security blanket will focus their minds."
Reed agreed that unless something is done to change course, three separate violent struggles now going on in Iraq (Sunnis vs. Shiites; Shiite factions fighting each other; Sunni insurgents fighting Americans) will likely merge into one massive calamity.
When the senators were asked if a Democratic majority in the House or Senate would force the issue in Iraq by threatening to cut off funds for the war, they quickly ruled out any such action. Levin said that a simple resolution recommending to the president that he set a day to begin redeployment might do the trick.
Other forces could nudge Bush in that direction, he said: The growing concern among senior uniformed officers about the impact of the lengthy Iraq deployment on troop morale and unit readiness; and the post-election report of the special Iraq commission headed by James A. Baker III and Lee Hamilton.
But after all the debate on Iraq this year, a change in control of even one house of Congress "would have a major impact, a huge motivating force on the president to change course," Levin said. "More and more Republicans would join with Democrats in trying to get the administration to change course."
Those words will be - and should be - taken seriously.
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