Toward a More Enlightened Security Policy

The presidential primaries have made for great sound bites and controversies; no doubt, the mainstream media are like pigs in mud. But let's not lose sight of the golden opportunity for all of us. This election presents an opportunity to rethink some of our stale approaches to governance and invigorate the national discourse on evergreen issues.

Security should be at the top of that list. With yet another African country flirting with civil collapse and no end in sight to the unrest in Iraq and Pakistan, it is crucial that we move beyond the Bush-era rhetoric of "evil" and "war on terror" -- all trappings and spin -- and get underneath the issue. We need to start talking about the beating, bleeding heart of security: economic and environmental justice and a fundamental belief in our increasing interdependence.

Much has been written about the profile of a terrorist -- so often young, male, and economically disadvantaged. Why is it that al-Qaeda is hip to what these passionate young men are looking for -- community, resources, identity -- while our own security experts seem to miss the point entirely? Why is it that we keep talking almost exclusively about suicide bombers and Orange Alerts, and totally ignore the looming question of long-term prevention? Why haven't we stopped to ask: What would enlightened national and even global security actually look like?

Our current administration hasn't entertained these questions seriously -- at least not in a way that has translated into the sweeping policy changes we so desperately need. (Somehow taking my sneakers off at airport security and being harassed about my shampoo hasn't made me feel safe.) For all of Bush's good Christian posturing, he has shown little compassion toward the meek in the most dangerous parts of the world. In fact, we've alienated some of the most vulnerable with our lingering, messy war -- killing, by many estimates, over 100,000 innocents and rightfully enraging others. There's plenty of bad news here.

The good news is that there are groups of forward-thinking politicians and diplomats that have been on the job, notably the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit. The summit, which was kicked off with a conference last November and will continue through June, is designed to shift the paradigm on the global security conversation. Participants include Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, Ms. Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, executive director of the African Women's Development Fund in Nigeria, and Marie Wilson of the White House Project, and so many others. The long list of sponsors includes The Annenberg Foundation Trust and the Council of Women World Leaders.

This wildly impressive group focuses on defining security according to four key themes: climate change, the responsibility to protect, the economics of insecurity, and preventing terrorism(s). In essence, they advocate taking a more holistic approach to security that, yes, includes a razor-sharp focus on terrorist threats today but also plans for a less insecure tomorrow by increasing economic opportunities and sustainable ecosystems throughout the world.

How are the current front-runners in the presidential primaries holding up to standards of enlightened security?

One of the reasons Barack Obama has been so successful among liberals exhausted by the "evildoer" rhetoric is, yes, that he didn't support the invasion of Iraq, but even more, that he has argued all along for the power of diplomacy. Bringing on advisers like Samantha Power, a foreign-policy journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, demonstrates his commitment to the new paradigm of security. Further, he promises to champion the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty around the world in half by 2015, and to double America's foreign assistance to $50 billion. He understands that reducing global inequality must be part of a national security agenda.

Although Hillary Clinton clearly shares the Summit's views in many ways, she speaks less in terms of diplomacy and more in terms of "alliance building" and "bipartisan consensus" (her use of terms like this is, to my mind, one of her campaign's downfalls). She rightfully focuses on her commitment to increasing access to public education around the world (77 million children are currently unschooled). Unfortunately, she also promises that she would wage "the war on terror" more effectively if she were president. Anti-war progressives don't want a president who even thinks in "the war on terror" paradigm anymore; they want one who recognizes that "terror" is created by people, people without economic resources or strong ties to healthy communities. These people don't need a military response, they need a humanitarian one.

Republican front-runner John McCain's approach to global security can be summed up in two words: military force. The only way we'll be safer, he argues, is if we increase the strength of our military, and he doesn't really bother much with the question of prevention. Who could forget the town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, last January at which he said that it "would be fine with" him if the U.S. military stayed in Iraq for "a hundred years"? It's safe to say that McCain and the esteemed women of the summit don't have the same perspective on -- or definition of -- genuine safety.

The bottom line is this: We won't be safe until more people throughout the world are safe. Our fates are inextricably intertwined. Tens of thousands of people die each day from hunger and poverty-related causes, including 30,000 children under the age of 5 from preventable disease. Over 1.6 million people, 90 percent of whom live in developing countries, die each year in violent conflicts. Climate crises have been responsible, at least in part, for genocide in Africa and will continue to pit people against one another who are desperate for the most basic of resources -- water, food, and clean air.

Making more people throughout the world safe will take broad-based thinking, aggressive activism, and visionary leadership -- in part, what the summit calls "tract two diplomacy." The idea is that, yes, we need more enlightened government leaders, but we also need to depend on former officials and contemporary visionaries -- like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the women of the summit -- to be of service where service is so desperately needed, and to help our leaders shape a more enlightened security policy.

During his recent visit to Rwanda, Bush was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying the situation there served as a reminder that "there is evil in the world, and evil must be confronted." Evil, it seems to me, doesn't really exist. It is a concept that makes us feel more comfortable, that allows us to deny the capacity for inhumanity in all humans. It sets up an us-versus-them mentality, when really it's more aptly described as us-versus-us.

While I don't believe in evil, I do believe in the disastrous consequences of small-minded thinking about profound challenges. Violence is bred in desperate situations and eye-for-an-eye solutions. There is no enemy to be murdered, no country to be squashed in order for us to be truly secure. It is old, inept ideas that must be thrown out.