The Biden Opportunity: Fulbright or Vandenberg. Partisan or Citizen. Past or Future.
Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) stands at one of the major crossroads of our time.
As the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Biden has the power to set the tone for the next two years. He must decide: He can follow the path of Sen. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) who, as chairman of Foreign Relations in the 1960s, focused on the past, opposed the Vietnam War and helped set the stage for an American defeat.
Or he can look to the future and develop a bipartisan consensus about what threatens America and what needs to be done about it.
Sen. Biden can be a very partisan chairman leading a very partisan series of hearings narrowly focused on Iraq and trying to blame President Bush for the world's problems. Or he can be a leader who focuses on what threatens America and what we need to do to secure safety in an increasingly dangerous world.
Seeking Blame or Seeking Solutions?
If Chairman Biden decides to do a Fulbright-like partisan series of narrowly tailored hearings, he will clearly be focused on the past, seeking to assign blame, and pursuing a series of actions which would force the Bush Administration to be on the defensive.
This will maximize partisan hostility and minimize the development of effective, creative solutions to our national security challenges.
Or he could choose an alternative path.
In 1946, Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg was the new Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Republicans had been out of power for 16 years. They thought they could win the Presidency in two years. There was every temptation to be bitterly partisan. On domestic politics they were. Republicans disliked Democrat President Harry Truman and tended to speak of him with contempt.
However, Vandenberg had seen the failure of the peace process after World War I. He had seen the power of partisan politics to cripple American standing in the world. He had also seen thousands of young Americans sacrifice their lives in World War II.
Biden Has the Same Opportunity Vandenberg Had in 1946
Sen. Vandenberg understood that his duty was to work with President Truman to assess the threats to America and to develop a bipartisan strategy which Americans could support.
The result was the policy of containment, which for 44 years (1947 to 1991) protected freedom against the Soviet Union until that empire collapsed and disappeared.
Fewer Americans have been more successful or served their country better than the Vandenberg-Truman-Marshall-Eisenhower bipartisanship team. Sen. Biden has the same opportunity today that Sen. Vandenberg had in 1946.
A Bipartisan Consensus on Our Enemies and How to Defeat Them
Imagine that Sen. Biden broadens the scope of his hearings to include the scale of threats facing America.
Imagine that he focuses on asking experts what needs to be done for America to successfully address these threats. Imagine that he consciously seeks to create a bipartisan consensus on American solutions for American national security.
The entire tone of the process and the results of the process would move us forward in a decisive way. It would lay the foundation for the next President from either party to be inheriting a bipartisan consensus on how to defend America and defeat her enemies.
Sen. Biden has a very great opportunity indeed. But he must choose to take it.
Taking an American Approach to National Security Is the Right Thing to Do
There is a profound moral reason for Chairman Biden to approach these hearings from a nonpartisan standpoint: National security is about the life and death of Americans and potentially the survival of America itself.
The threats are too real, our enemies too dangerous, and the solutions too hard for national security to be dealt with in a narrowly partisan way. If our leaders in Washington stay fixated on partisan in-fighting, Republicans may win or Democrats may win -- but either way, America will lose.
1. The Threats Are Too Real.
The evidence is overwhelming that North Korea and Iran are trying to get nuclear weapons. The terrorist organizations speak openly on their web sites about their efforts to get biological and nuclear weapons.
We are entering an era where we could literally lose an American city or cities in one morning. We are entering a time when millions of American lives could be endangered overnight.
This is a time for Americans to have an honest dialogue about the forces and technologies that threaten us, the men who openly say they want to kill us, and what it will take for us to work together on a set of strategies that will make the American people safe.
This challenge is so much more important than the normal backbiting, nit picking, petty politics that routinely dominate Washington that it will take a real act of leadership to rise to the challenge.
2. Our Enemies Are Too Dangerous.
The painful, difficult reality of the five and a half years since the 9/11 attacks is that our enemies are more determined, more ruthless, more resilient and more resourceful than we had expected.
When Kim Jong Il and his North Korean dictatorship ignores the entire world, including his major supplier, China, and fires seven missiles on our Fourth of July and then sets off a nuclear weapon, we are up against people who will not be bluffed.
When the Venezuelan dictator has the nerve to viciously attack the American President in a United Nations speech on American soil and then openly give away subsidized heating oil in America to build ties inside the country he is denouncing, we are up against a cleverness we had not anticipated.
When the Iranians blatantly admit they have been lying to the International Atomic Energy Agency for 18 years and then go on offense against the powers that seek to limit their nuclear program, they are showing a brazen disregard of the international community that is chilling.
In Iraq, our enemies have proven more numerous, more complex, more resourceful and more resilient than we expected.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is making a comeback from its sanctuaries in Northwest Pakistan. At the same time, one-third of the country's economy is based on illegal drugs.
None of these problems is on the verge of being solved and none of them is getting easier or less dangerous.
3. The Solutions Are Too Hard for Business as Usual.Protecting America and helping our allies succeed is going to require a generation of invention, creativity, ingenuity and investment.
There is no Republican monopoly on solving these problems.
There is no Democratic monopoly on solving these problems.
This is not just a matter of policy.
Most of the basic instruments of American national security, foreign policy and homeland security simply no longer work. Katrina was the most vivid and painful example of this collapse of effective implementation. But Democrats have been so busy attacking President George W. Bush that they have avoided thinking about how bad the bureaucratic collapse has become. And Republicans have been so busy defending their administration that they have not allowed themselves to confront just how broken the system is.
Every Bureaucracy Will Fight Tooth and Nail to Protect Itself > From Change
Focusing on personality and policy are the easy parts. We need a serious effort to understand what does not work in simple day-to-day effectiveness and what needs to be done to correct it. And don't kid yourself. This will turn out to be one of the hardest and most bitterly fought parts of rethinking our national security and homeland security situation. But it needn't be partisan.
Every great bureaucracy will fight tooth and nail to protect itself from change. And while individual civil servants are patriots, the historic reality is that without leadership, institutions will energetically resist change at the expense of defeating our enemies. Any partisan effort to transform the entrenched bureaucracies will inevitably fail because the bureaucratic defenders of the status quo and their allied interest groups will act in self-preservation to oppose any real change.
A Bipartisan Model for SuccessLet me suggest a possible model for success. In 1981, I helped found the bipartisan military reform caucus. And in 1986, I helped pass the bipartisan Goldwater-Nichols reform bill that created the concept of joint-war fighting, which people point to now as a major improvement in the system.
It could never have been passed as a partisan act by either the Democrats or the Republicans. It had to grow out of a genuine bipartisan spirit of concern about fixing the armed services.
Pursuing a path for partisan political gain today will be paid for in lives lost in a preventable calamity tomorrow.
Let us hope that today, faced with much bigger problems with profoundly greater threats to our survival, Sen. Biden chooses to launch bipartisan hearings with a future-oriented, solutions-oriented American approach to securing America's future.