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Democrats Try to Bolster Image on Foreign Policy

Saying they’ve learned lessons from the 2004 elections, Senate Democrats are laying out an ambitious, aggressive and costly foreign policy agenda that they hope will begin to reverse the perception that the party is soft on defense and national security.

“We prefer to define ourselves and not let Republicans define us,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Durbin added that Democrats have long supported having a strong military and an aggressive pursuit of terrorists — “but the rhetoric of the last campaign led people to believe otherwise.”

Indeed, Democrats said they recognize that their inability to articulate a plan for dealing with terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan played a big role in Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential election loss.

“We’re answering the question of what would we do and what we think should be done,” said Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), the lead sponsor of a bill being introduced by the Senate Democratic leadership.

The measure is designed to steer U.S. foreign policy toward a more educational role in the Muslim world, while taking a hard line against allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who many Democrats believe have not done enough to quell radicalism and terrorism within their borders.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the Democrats’ efforts are a clear recognition that they “had no real proposal on foreign policy or the war” during the 2004 presidential campaign.

“Now they appear to be looking back and saying, ‘We didn’t have a coherent national security policy,’” said McCain.

Republicans were successful in November, McCain said, because the GOP was able to “frame the issue” of national security in an appealing way, particularly on national television at their presidential nominating convention.

“The majority of Americans made up their minds over the issue of the war on terrorism and national security,” said McCain.

The rollout of the Democrats’ foreign policy bill coincides with a virtual blitz of Democratic foreign policy rhetoric on the Senate floor, primarily during this week’s debate over the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of State. As national security adviser, Rice was a key architect of the war in Iraq and the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — two efforts that Democrats have raised pointed questions about.

The bill, called the Targeting Terrorists More Effectively Act, is designed to be a more proactive way of responding to Republican criticism that Democrats offer only disapproval, not solutions. The legislation is part of a 10-bill package of Democratic priorities announced earlier this week.

The measure would state that the policy of the United States is to promote a “moderate, democratic” state in Pakistan and that Pakistan’s maintenance of a network of nuclear and missile proliferation “would be inconsistent with Pakistan being considered an ally of the United States.”

The measure also would require the Bush administration to work more extensively with Saudi Arabia in “openly confronting” the terrorist groups within the country that have in part been tolerated and even funded by Saudi royals. Many of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were Saudis, as is al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

“The Saudis cannot continue to incite, cannot continue to fund … terrorists and then consider themselves my friend,” said Biden. Biden added that the Bush administration has not done enough to confront Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but said Bush’s sweeping inaugural address in which he advocated spreading freedom around the world gave him hope that Bush would be willing to be more aggressive with undemocratic regimes that also happen to be U.S. allies.

In fact, many of the proposals in the bill are designed to specifically repudiate the policies pursued by the Bush administration.

The measure is “an attempt to provide the tools necessary for a real war against terrorism and not the misguided attempts that this administration has engaged in in the past,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Manley noted that while the bill does respond in some ways to what happened in the 2004 campaign, it was crafted long before a recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that the key element in President Bush’s election victory was not “moral values” but rather the national security concerns of voters.

The Democratic bill would set aside $750 million over four years to hire 2,000 new special-forces military personnel and $150 million to hire more linguists who understand languages used in the Muslim world. It would also re-establish a joint U.S.-Russian program designed to disarm and secure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.

Nearly $1 billion would be used to expand existing public diplomacy and education programs aimed at creating secular schools that would replace schools controlled by radical Islamists.

“We really believe there has to be a better method for getting terrorists,” said Reid. “The problem in the world today is not just the terrorists but all the people who sympathize with them.”

The measure would also increase funding for domestic law enforcement and would provide funds to hire 1,200 new immigration and customs enforcement agents. In addition, port security would get $3 billion over four years.

Besides beefing up the abilities of law enforcement and the military to go after terrorists, the bill would also establish an independent commission, similar to the 9/11 commission, to investigate allegations of torture and abuse of prisoners taken in both the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Principally, the commission would be charged with looking into Bush administration memos — some authored by Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales — that appear to endorse the use of torture for some terrorism detainees.

In all, Biden said his bill will need $16 billion to implement. It “costs a lot of money,” Biden acknowledged. However, he said his plan is more important than the Bush administration’s plans for a potential $1 trillion overhaul of Social Security and attempts to make the president’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent.

Biden said he would pay for the bill “with deficit spending just like [Republicans] do” for their proposals. “We can’t afford not to spend this $16 billion,” he said.

Despite its broad scope and sizable price tag, it’s a proposal that Biden said appeals to nearly all Senate Democrats.

“There is a broad if not total consensus of the Democratic Party on how to proceed on this issue,” said Biden.

Centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) agreed. “It helps to overcome the image that Democrats are disengaged on military issues,” said Nelson. “There’s this impression that Democrats want to ban guns and burn the flag — and don’t care about military issues.”

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