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Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Convention Stringer Report

Who needs to go to the convention when you have actual local Democratic activists who are willing to go for you and write it up from the comfort of their own home, (thus avoiding all that scrambling for diet coke and wireless access?)

I am very pleased that Samela, prolific blog and forum commenter and extremely smart person, agreed to write up her impressions for me today of an invitation-only meeting on terrorism. I remain comvinced that this issue is really the only issue on which this election will be won or lost and I have been very curious as to how the Kerry campaign can hone their message going into the stretch as well as how they will aproach this difficult problem once in office. Bush will have left us with a terrible, intractable problem that goes far beyond holding hearings about how screwed up the CIA is.

Here is Samela's report. It's quite interesting. (And she got a real, live scoop too.)

As promised, a recap of the panel "On the Status of National Security and the War on Terror" we were able to attend this morning at Suffolk University Law School.This was the kind of deeply substantive discussion that doesn't hit the convention floor, nor alas even the general media ... though it definitely should. It was at once sobering and hopeful--hopeful that is, in the reassurance that Kerry's advisors and (perhaps to a lesser extent)Democratic members of the Armed Services committees really "get it." Despite the enormous problems a Kerry administration will face in these areas, the starkly different approach they will  take can only ameliorate the situation.

The panel was moderated by Massachusetts Rep. Marty Meehan who is the ranking Democrat on the House subcomittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities. Also from the House were old-timers John Murtha, Rep. of Pennsylvania, who is ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcomittee (and by way of interest, the first Vietnam Vet to have been elected to congress); and Ike Skelton, Rep. from Missouri, who is ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. From the military side were Wesley Clark and 3-star Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy.

Each panelist gave a brief opening statement. Murtha stressed two things: how the Bush administration had submitted a budget that (for political reasons) contained absolutely no money for personnel and equipment needs. They'd been borrowing from various agencies because they didn't want to ask, and the House had to pass $25 billion in appropriations for the most basic needs. His other point, a la Michael Moore, was that working-class people are fighting this war, and that it is a REAL war.

Clark hit on three points that I suspect will crop up in his Thursday speech to the convention. First was the "totally misguided" strategy the Bush admin. has been using for the "war" on terror--namely, the use of the military as a primary tool in this effort and the conviction that you have to go after states. The "right" strategy would be to focus on protection at home first and on working with other nations to get a legal definition of terrorism and a legal international framework in which to pursue it. Second, he blasted Rumsfeld's idea in 2001 of a military transformation. All the things had already been done by the Clinton administration, according to Clark; the "real" issue for military transformation, he claimed, was (and is) to create both the organizational structure and doctrine for peace building (both preventatively and after military actions). Finally, he spoke about how the administration has overstreched the volunteer force concept, which is at huge risk.

Ike Skelton stressed that there are two wars, and we damned well shouldn't confuse them: the terrorist threat and unconventional warfare, which has now spread throughout the world after failed Bush strategy; and the war in Iraq, which he thankfully called "a war of choice." He explained how he'd sent Bush two letters in March 2003 warning of the aftermath, but was assured by the Pentagon not to worry. He gave some historical perspective on how the British handled guerilla warfare in Malaysia and how we tried to do it in Vietnam, but I kind of lost him at this point.

Kennedy was a real breath of fresh air, and clearly a truly progressive thinker. She first spoke about how one flaw in government we can fix with Kerry is how we come to decisions. Usually this process is crisis-driven.We need a much more sophisticated process that is more "granular" and shaded. Echoing Clark a bit, she spoke of the RAMP (Relevance of American Military Report), which clearly suggested we need some kind of "hand off" after military action, whether to the State Department or other agencies. The military is neither resourced nor trained to do these things, and often the military solution is not the appropriate first step. Finally, she explained how we understand hardware very well but not what Joseph Nye called the "soft elements of power"--abstract ways of mapping out the world (like, say, how receptive other countries are to our ideas) instead of counting weapons systems. She also, thankfully, said she felt it was unhelpful to use the "war on X" language,and that we needed to develop new vocabulary. She also stressed that we need to expand the notion of national security to include education, health care, the economy (both ours and the "bad guys'"), etc. Oh ... and she said we should invite a greater range of voices, not just the boardrooms of the defense contractors. This is a beautiful woman (both intellectually and physically), and I am so glad she is one of Kerry's military advisors.

A reporter from the Boston Globe asked an infuriating question about how the Democrats could counter this perception that the Bush administration was stronger on NS. Even more distressing was the response from the Congressmen on the panel. Murtha suggested the American public understands this president has lost trust, while Skelton, focusing again on how the preponderance of deaths are coming from towns under 20,000, said the American people know who is paying the price. Clark seemed to suggest we need to be a bit more overt in pointing out the incompetence of the Bush administration in matters of NS, as opposed to the competence a Kerry administration would bring. The generals were both more political, it would seem, than the Congressmen.

Next question was about a plan for Iraq on November 3, when Kerry was elected. Murtha said Egyptian generals told him we need to pull more troops out of cities, one by one, and let the Iraqis take over completely while we protect perimeter lines, logistics, etc. Clark said we have to go beyond this, because the problem is not just Iraq. He explained how Bush created a dynamic of conflict in the whole region, not just Iraq. The Syrians and Iranians, having been threatened by us, now have a vested interest in our NOT succeeding, because they know if we do they're
next (with Bush). He said we must talk to governments in the whole region, and that it was imperative to return to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meehan said Kerry was going to immediately convene a world summit with international leaders. Kennedy talked about "microcredit," a concept I don't fully understand, but I think involves economic development funding to an entrepreneurial class in Iraq for developing community-based projects.

Clark returned to the notion of needing a full-fledged agency for preventing conflicts, a subject he discussed at some length, and which apparently has been the upshot of our initial experience in Haiti.

The last question was from a physician who had been redeployed to Kuwait, at age 58! It was about the Reserves and the strain on this system. This opened a pretty hot and heavy discussion of the draft, which Murtha thought was coming come hell or high water. Which Clark said, more cautiously, we had to have plans for, but "Plan A" should be increasing active duty size by 40,000 and putting more money into recruitment, which is apparently an exact science.

Kennedy was most intriguing. She suggested two things we should think about. First, women apparently are treated differently than men when requesting training assignments. A male wishing to be a military police is assigned for school immediately. Women are delayed for six months, which usually means we lose them. If we really seriously want to include women, we need to consider current practices and attitudes. Second, the needs we currently have in personnel are identical to the number of gay and lesbian personnel who have been discharged recently. Do the math. And these people were often highly trained, some speaking Arabic or
having intelligence skills.

That's all! Summary: the Generals seemed to be more out-of-the-box thinkers and more politically inclined than the Congressmen, who were fairly territorial about their little corners of committees. That said, Murtha and Skelton, who are pretty conservative guys I think, have clearly been converted, and truly see the dangers and mistakes the Bush administration has wreaked. Oh, and Murtha said passing the Patriot Act was the worst thing he'd done in his life, tho I think
it was an excuse for wanting to "go slow" on implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

There were about 200 people at this event, all pretty much the dark suit and tie crowd. I believe this was invitation only, and some seemed to be delegates, some
may have been local hi-tech security company executives--a subject, thankfully, little broached (necessary as these firms are).

Very interesting, I think. A few points stand out to me.

Everybody acknowledges that a draft is on the table although Clark thinks troop levels can be raised with a more sophisticated type of recruitment. I really thought this was a political argument not a real position. It's big deal if it's being seriously considered.

The shortage of troops exactly correlate to the numbers of gays and lesbians drummed out of the military. Very intriguing talking point.

General Claudia Kennedy sounds like an excellent prospect to run for office.

But the big news is that Marty Meehan says that Kerry will immediately call for a world summit if he's elected.

Remember folks, you heard it here first.


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