The killing in Iraq of the archterrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is important - both for Iraq and for the U.S. political debate about Iraq.
It is important for Iraq for a few reasons. First, Zarqawi was finally tracked down because someone in his organization or in the Sunni community in Iraq turned against him. We need more of that, because Iraq will only work if more Sunnis turn against the terrorists and join the government. Second, al-Qaida can talk all it wants about replacing Zarqawi, but he is not so easily replaced, because he was a world-class, first-team all-star terrorist. For three years he terrorized Iraq, while eluding the U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and CIA. Bad guys like him don't grow on trees. But his death will be a turning point only if it leads more Iraqis to come together into a coherent government and army. Ultimately, that is all that matters.
Zarqawi's death, though, also interests me in terms of U.S. politics. Recent polls show that not only are the Democrats more trusted to manage key domestic issues - from health care to the budget - but they have pulled even with Republicans on national security, a traditional Democratic Party weakness. If I were the Democrats, though, I wouldn't get too comfortable.
What the polls show is largely the result of President Bush's incompetent performance in Iraq, rather than the emergence of a convincing Democratic national security message or group of candidates respected on defense. When it comes to national security, I've always felt that voters don't listen through their ears. They listen through their gut. They vote based on a visceral sense of whether a candidate understands we have real enemies and is ready to confront them.
What Zarqawi and the recently arrested group of terrorists in Canada remind us of is that, whatever you think about the Iraq war, open societies today are threatened by these utterly ruthless jihadists. Many Americans feel that. If Democrats want to really seize control of the national security issue, they must persuade the country - in its gut - that they have a convincing post-Iraq strategy to rally the world against these Islamo-totalitarians.
Precisely how is the subject of two insightful, provocative new books. One is The Good Fight: Why Liberals - and Only Liberals - Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, by Peter Beinart, editor at large of the New Republic. The other is With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty, essays edited by Will Marshall, who heads the Progressive Policy Institute.
"Democrats should be full-throated in their critique of Bush," Beinart said in an interview. "He has done terrible things. But Democrats are involved in a two-sided struggle: One is against Bush, and one is against Islamic totalitarianism. They are two separate things. You have to have an answer to that second problem."
Harry Truman's great achievement, argued Beinart, was to persuade his party and the country "that anti-Communism was a liberal principle, not just a conservative one, and that Democrats had their own strategy to deal with it - a strategy that included powerful international institutions like NATO, which made American power legitimate abroad, and civil rights, which made America a better country at home."
Democrats need to do the same today. That means, he said, building institutions that can intervene in failed states, offering their own strategies for confronting the jihadists, and dealing honestly and decently with prisoners in this murky war.
Going into 2008, added Marshall, when Bush will not be on the ballot, Democrats need to convey to voters "that they viscerally understand that liberty is in danger" when groups of people around the world think they can kill anyone at any time. "There has been real denial about that among some Democrats," he said, "and a tendency to focus only on what we've done wrong."
Democrats can be credible on this issue. Democrats understand "that the president has squandered our assets in fighting an overly militarized war on terror," Marshall said. "We understand that allies matter and that power should be exercised through institutions that legitimate our power and help others work with us. And we understand that America's economic might and our status as an open and prosperous society has enormous magnetic appeal to people."
© 2006, New York Times News Service