- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Now that the Democratic Party’s primary contest has reinjected national security issues into the presidential race, it’s a good time to pose tough questions to all the candidates about the red phone ringing in the White House at 3 a.m., signaling a crisis somewhere in the world.

During the cold war, the red phone was actually a hot line to Moscow and its bell portended a nuclear alert. But Sen. Hillary Clinton resurrected the image to paint her rival, Sen. Barack Obama, as less seasoned to safeguard Americans. He countered by arguing that his judgment was superior to hers.

Mrs. Clinton’s victories in Texas, Vermont, and Rhode Island stemmed in part from her characterization of a callow Barack Obama.

But their campaign duel should refocus us on the dangers we face; we should quiz all the contenders, including the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, about responding to international threats.

To date, most of the candidates’ national security positions have focused on the Iraq war and what to do about a conflict has marked the fifth anniversary of its beginning and has, along with fighting in Afghanistan, cost about 4,500 American lives and more than $646 billion.

The two Democratic contenders differ only slightly on future U.S. policy toward Iraq. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have advanced timetables for the start of immediate withdrawals of U.S. troops, culminating in the removal of all combat troops not long after either takes office and shifting the U.S. emphasis to striking al Qaeda bases.

Mr. McCain shot back to a question during the New Hampshire primary about the length of the U.S. commitment in Iraq by saying a “hundred years.” But on reflection he added that he envisioned a lengthy stabilizing mission, such as the ones in Japan or South Korea, long as Americans are not suffering casualties.

But all their answers leave a lot of gray areas. Details and time frames — such as from near to mid- to long-term, about U.S. missions in Iraq — would provide voters an understanding of candidates’ thinking about Iraq. And, for a clincher, the likely impact of these decisions on the Afghan conflict and the global war on terror.

But there is more to America’s overseas involvement than Iraq, especially in light of Iran’s nuclear-seeking ambitions, China’s accelerating arms buildup, Russia’s newfound assertiveness, and, of course, the ongoing Islamist terror campaign.

In this post-Sept. 11, 2001, era, these are big questions, urgent questions, and tricky questions. But gaining some insight into America’s next “decider” would be useful, to say the least. For one, what kind of world role does our next commander in chief envision for America? Is it to promote democracy or just manage relations with other powers, no matter their governments’ internal policies? Does the United Nations figure in this worldview?

The urgent questions include what to do about Iran’s pell-mell race to a nuclear program and how to forestall a possible Chinese forceful integration of Taiwan after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. How can the United States keep Russia, with its growing autocracy, its assertive international impulses and wounded pride over the loss of its Soviet empire, from leaving the West in pursuit of a new Cold War super-threat? What can the United States do to drag Pakistan back from the abyss of dysfunction that jeopardizes U.S. interests in that nuclear-armed county, along with Afghanistan, South Asia and even the Middle East?

In what way will the next Oval Office occupant handle North Korea’s foot-dragging on coming clean about its nuclear arms after signing the October agreement? And how can the United States and its allies thoughtfully respond to the spreading terrorist threat in the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands, Africa, Europe and the Philippines?

The tricky questions include how the presidential aspirant feels about political assassinations? So far, we have skirted the tough legal and political questions while carrying out successful missile attacks on terrorist facilities in Yemen and three high-profile ones in Pakistan (along with a recent attempt in Somalia).

Each strike traversed international boundaries to fell suspected terrorists, in some cases killing bystanders. Not much concern has been aroused beyond the countries themselves. But it is just a matter of time before one causes an uproar.

Hypothetically, but still realistically, will the next White House resident display what Napoleon termed “2 a.m. courage” when awakened by a red phone call from the director of national intelligence asking for permission to waterboard a terrorist for information about a major bomb blast scheduled for the morning rush hour in Grand Central station?

Americans now live in world vastly changed by the end of the Cold War, by the rise of major competing (if not unfriendly) powers, and by the metastasizing sinister Islamist forces bent on causing mass death in our cities.

This presidential election rides on more than health-care plans, tax rates and business as usual. We have a right to straight answers to questions about the dangers lurking on and beyond our shores.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of “American Power after the Berlin Wall” (2007).

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