Yesterday afternoon, Admiral Joe Sestak, former National Security Advisor Tony Lake, former National Coordinator for Security and Counter-Terrorism Richard Clarke, and (belatedly) former Special Assistant on Intelligence Rand Beers gathered in Swarthmore’s Pearson-Hall Cinema to discuss “National Security and the Way Forward” as part of a campaign stop in Mr. Sestak’s run for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 7th District.
The fairly brief discussion was broken into two main sections. For the majority of the discussion, the members of the panel presented their views on the United States’ national security, particularly focusing on the Iraq war, and later they responded to questions posed by members of the audience.
After an introduction by political science professor Dominic Tierney, Mr. Sestak began the discussion. A brief glimpse at Mr. Sestak’s campaign literature shows that he is campaigning on a national security platform, and that message was repeated and expanded in his remarks. Interestingly, however, he chose to avoid the most obvious topic–Iraq–and instead focus on other parts of the world.
Mr. Sestak outlined three central foreign policy objectives: (1) To enhance security with effective diplomacy, (2) to advance American economic prosperity, and (3) to promote democracy. Ultimately, argued Sestak, the best route to American peace and prosperity is global peace and prosperity. Global peace and prosperity requires the expansion of NATO, a close relationship between China and the United States, and a United States ready to speak and act out against terrorism, international crime, and environmental degradation.
These goals, Sestak stressed, require the U.S. to lead not through unilateral action but instead by working with the other nations of the world: “We are at our best when we achieve our purposes through alliances with others,” he argued, “we are strong because we lead the world. Now, we must regain our leadership.”
Former National Security Advisor Tony Lake followed after Mr. Sestak. As Mr. Lake took the microphone, he confided that the panel was the first overt political action he had taken since he left his government post in 1997. Why did he choose to return to the public spotlight? Largely, he said, because he believes the 2006 elections are exceedingly important. In his view, Congress is a powerful body which has made a series of “tragic misjudgments” over the past six years, resulting in low global respect for the United States, Iran and North Korea pursuing nuclear weapons, and an increasingly dangerous Middle East.
The 2006 elections, Lake suggested, could determine the face of the American response to global warming and make or break the situation in Iraq, and he clearly spoke out in support of Mr. Sestak’s candidacy. With his declaration of support out of the way, Lake then focused on his primary concern: Afghanistan. Lake argued that Afghanistan is in serious trouble, with roadside bombs up 30%, opium production up 50%, and the Bush administration cutting the Afghani aid budget by 30%. Quite simply, he argued, the United States has seriously botched the attempt to reconstruct
Afghanistan by focusing too much on the Iraq war.
The Iraq war, Lake argued, “is unpardonable. … It is so under-resourced and badly managed, it has become to moral equivalent of the invasion of Panama,” referencing the widely ridiculed 1987 invasion of Panama by the United States. The core of the problem, he suggested, is that the American government failed to “ask THE question a civilian leader should ask: ‘what is our exit strategy?'” He explained that such a strategy should not simply be an escape route in case things go horribly wrong, but should instead establish our strategic and political objectives so that there is a clearly defined end to the operation. If we had tried to create such a strategy, Lake posited, “we should have known that it would be nearly impossible to go into Iraq.”
Ultimately, argued Lake, the administration “failed to understand the difference between posture–like calling Darfur ‘a genocide’ and then not acting–and policy–dealing with the bad guys.”
Richard Clarke, the former National Coordinator for Security and Counter-Terrorism under President Bush, took up where Tony Lake left off and focused on a single hot-button issue: torture. He masterfully set the scene. The Joint Chiefs of Staff send the President a single recommendation: do not support torture. In response, President Bush, for one of the first times in his presidency went straight to Congress to lobby in favor of torture or “alternative interrogation.” Such a policy, Clarke stated plainly, would be a violation of the Geneva Convention that we “signed and the senate ratified,” a convention which therefore is the “supreme law of the land.”
Clarke argued that one of the key pieces of testimony supporting the Administration’s decision to engage in the Iraq War came from a single source, a prisoner who was repeatedly tortured. Such results, Clarke argued “are not trustworthy.” The prisoner claimed that the Iraqi national government trained three people to use weapons of mass destruction, and his claims have since been proven to be false.
Moreover, argued Clarke, “we don’t need to do this kind of thing. We never have needed to do it. We don’t need to do it now. And when we do, our standing in the world is diminished.” Instead, Clarke suggested an alternate route: “the only way we can win is by winning the battle of ideas. How do we in that? We do so by persuading the Islamic world that they have more in common with us than with the terrorists.” So far for the Bush administration, however, this has not proven an easy task.
After 9/11, he explained, there was a giant march, hundreds strong, of people marching in sympathy with the United States through the streets of Tehran, the capital of Iran. Five years ago, Clarke argued, we had an opportunity to unite with these people against terrorism. We had an opportunity to take the $400 billion we eventually spent on the Iraq war and instead invest in improving Pakistani schools, invest in making transportation networks such as SEPTA safer, invest in securing chemical plants, and in securing American ports.
Clarke closed by arguing that “there is a time in history when an election makes a difference. There is a time when you have to do more. Think about that,” he urged, “think about if this is a year when you are going to do more.” And if so, “Sestak is not a man who would have sat passively by in the House of Representatives and let this kind of thing happen.”
After finishing the first part of the panel, Professor Tierney launched a short question-and-answer section. It was then that one student sprung a difficult question on Mr. Lake: “We all know Iraq was a mistake. What should we do now? What would you have done differently?”
Lake argued that “there is no good answer.” That said, he did propose several steps he believed could help mitigate the problems we face. Instead of staking political careers on the success of Iraq, Lake argued that the US government should issue an ultimatum to the Iraqi government: “We are ready to stay for 1-1.5 years, we are willing to draw our troops down slowly, we are willing to protect your borders…but only if you get the militias under control, only if you compromise with the Sunnis.” Only by forcing the Iraqi government to take such actions does Iraqi have a
chance of resolving in our favor, he claimed.
Sestak was also asked his position on the genocide in Darfur. In response, Sestak explained that he believes the United States has three kinds of interests: Vital interests, which are ones on which our survival depends; important interests, which are ones which will impact the future of the United States; and finally humanitarian interests, which are ones which impact our deeds and image in the world. “I have watched how we are respected for the power of our military and of the strength of our economy,” explained Sestak, “and I have watched how we are admired for the power of our ideals.” He clearly came out in support of American involvement in Dafur, suggesting that it is not appropriate for the United States to stand by and do nothing, however he also did not suggested any more specific policy options he might pursue in Darfur.
With that as the final question, the panel quickly dispersed to make way for a following lecture at 4:30.