Senator Christopher Dodd had a nice moment in the Democrats' Las Vegas presidential debate. Wolf Blitzer had crashed through Bill Richardson's blowsy, high-minded disquisition on the need to observe human rights in Pakistan, with the question, "What you're saying, Governor, is that human rights, at times, are more important than American national security?" Richardson seemed to gulp: Was I saying that? What do I do now? Uh, can't pull a Hillary. And so, very deer in headlights, he said, "Yes." This gave Blitzer license to ask each candidate the same question. Barack Obama wandered around in it. "The concepts are not contradictory ... they are complementary." True — but foolishly fuzzy. It was Dodd's turn next, and he said without hesitation, "Obviously, national security, keeping the country safe." He was quickly seconded by Clinton: "I agree with that completely."Get the troops out now? Klein needs to bone-up on post-conflict stability operations. Expert opinion suggests that the U.S. will need to keep 80 to 100 thousand troops in Iraq for the transition to local control (with the U.S. finally keeping residual troop contingents in-country for security and anti-terror operations).
But the damage had been done. The next day, I suffered through Rush Limbaugh lambasting the dopey Dems, who actually — can you believe this, friends? — put the rights of terrorists above the nation's security! That was ridiculous. All Richardson and Obama were saying was that support for human rights was an essential component of U.S. foreign policy. They are joined in this belief by George W. Bush, whose naive support for democracy in countries that aren't ready for it has destabilized the Middle East. Sadly, that sort of complicating detail isn't very useful in presidential campaigns. If Richardson or, more likely, Obama wins the nomination, the Republicans will have a ready-made "Human Rights for Terrorists" spot.
Dodd and Clinton were right on the merits and astute on the politics. If the Democrats want to win in 2008, they can't be mealymouthed on issues of national security. That doesn't mean they need to be witlessly hawkish. It doesn't mean they have to join the neoconservative frenzy for war with Iran. It means they have to make the arguments against folly with clarity, toughness and a heavy dose of Realpolitik. It means they will have to convince the public that they will be more effective and realistic overseas than the Republicans have been. No more "Freedom Agendas." No more quagmires. A renewed emphasis on cleaning out al-Qaeda, even if it means special operations against the terrorist camps in Pakistan (as Obama has suggested). It also means that in each and every debate, the Dems should acknowledge the progress being made in Iraq and ask the question, So why can't we start bringing home the troops now?
No, what the Democrats need is another Harry Truman, a president who understands America's responsibility in the world and who's not afraid to deploy the nation's hard power to achieve its ends.