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Putting National Security on the Democratic Agenda

During the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, Rachel Kleinfeld grew furious with the candidates’ rhetoric on national security.

Kleinfeld, a scholar of international relations and a Democratic activist, heard some contenders “talking strong security,” she told the Forward, but they “weren’t connecting [those policies] to Democratic values” such as human rights or “equality of opportunity.”

Disturbed that the Democrats were missing an opportunity to articulate a uniquely Democratic vision for a strong national defense — and that they were consigning themselves to electoral oblivion — Kleinfeld and another young scholar, Matthew Spence, created the Truman National Security Project, armed with only a Web site and a manifesto.

“We decided there really was a need to create a movement of Democrats to stand up for these ideas and to really start to think about it, very much as a counterpart to the neoconservatives of the 1970s,” she said. Such a movement could “start the intellectual foundation” to make national security a winning issue for Democrats, a process she acknowledges could take a decade or two.

This weekend, the Truman Project — named for the Democratic president who established the Marshall Plan and dropped the atomic bomb — is holding its second national conference in Washington. As the group gains traction, Kleinfeld, 29, seems poised to emerge as the poster girl for a new generation of hawkish Democrats rethinking security questions in a post-9/11 world.

The daughter of conservative Republicans, Kleinfeld, a striking woman with large green eyes and a long mane of chestnut hair, grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her mother is a professor at the University of Alaska; her father, a lawyer and judge, taught Hebrew and Jewish subjects at the family’s synagogue, Or HaTzafon, known colloquially as the “Frozen Chosen,” the northernmost congregation on the continent.

“My parents were… well, libertarian is how they raised [us] three children,” said Kleinfeld, who lives in Washington.

A Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar who is writing her dissertation at Oxford, Kleinfeld started the Truman Project while working at Booz Allen Hamilton as a consultant on homeland and international security issues. The project has 55 “core members” with a much larger group of sympathizers. It has named 25 fellows from the elite of young Democratic foreign policy thinkers; several Truman fellows form the backbone of Democracy Arsenal, a new blog focusing on national security. Kleinfeld declined to disclose the group’s benefactors, saying that they want to remain anonymous, but she dropped the tantalizing hint that one is a “Woody Allen actor.”

In an effort to connect with legislators on Capitol Hill, the group is working with Rep. Steve Israel of New York, a self-described “Scoop Jackson Democrat” who heads a House Democratic study group on national security. Israel praised Kleinfeld as “brilliant.” He told the Forward, “She talked for five minutes and I was, like, where have you been all my life?”

Kleinfeld acknowledged that disseminating her group’s thinking presents a challenge because of the lack of foreign policy expertise among a broad swath of Democratic lawmakers. “Foreign policy is pretty estranged from [Democratic] politics,” she said. “There are a lot [of Congress members] who don’t understand, and not only do they not understand but they frankly don’t have the interest or are unable. It’s not their background. If you were a Democrat of that generation, you were told to focus on health care and domestic issues and education.”

In her own group, she said, many members hail from “red states.”

“They understand very viscerally that if we don’t take back the issue of national security, we will never win an election,” she said. “We’re reaching out to a lot of rising politicians in those red states…. These are Democrats who get it.”

Members of the group seed the press with articles and opinion pieces; the group has explicated its thinking in a series of position papers. At the June 3 to 5 conference, panel discussions will focus on such topics as “what Democrats did wrong, Republicans did right, and neo-cons did better” and “the need to increase the size of the deployable military.”

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to the group, said that the Truman Project would become “one of the most active and influential of young people’s groups in our country. They’re focused and know what they’re doing to get leaders looking at problems realistically and seeking realistic solutions.”

Meanwhile, some Republicans think the project will not work.

“I applaud the effort and wish her well,” said Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank. Like many neoconservatives, May started out as a Scoop Jackson Democrat. “But I think it’s going to be a challenging effort, given the fact that a substantial and important base within the Democratic Party sees the world through the prism of the war in Vietnam and has a view on promoting freedom and democracy that is indistinguishable from Patrick Buchanan’s.”

Kleinfeld is undeterred. Even though many Democrats are against the Iraq War, “they are not anti-security altogether,” she said.

“There is a good core of people in there, we are finding, who are anti-war for very rational reasons,” she said. Some were “on the fence about whether [President] Bush was going to follow through on nation building afterward.” Others “weren’t sure that this was the right war; they wanted us to fight the war on terror, not the war on Iraq.”

Kleinfeld feels that candidates who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004 did not do a good job of telling America what a strong Democratic foreign policy would look like.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, the most hawkish of the field, “allowed himself to be just seen as ‘Republican lite,’ that he was just going to the right of the Republicans, rather than connecting security beliefs to these Democratic values,” Kleinfeld said. Howard Dean, opposing the Iraq War for principled reasons, “irresponsibly” let the media portray him as the candidate of the “far-left wing,” she said. John Kerry, meanwhile, in Kleinfeld’s view, retreated into being the anti-Bush: “He was a realist at heart, and that made it hard for him to have an overarching vision.”

“If you look at what the Democratic party stands for — the ideals of human rights and civil rights, of belief in progress and the belief in equality of opportunity and the ability of people to achieve in life given the necessary ingredients for that potential success — these aren’t domestic values or foreign values, they’re just values,” Kleinfeld said. “To take those Democratic values which I believe in strongly and to expand them to the world is natural.”

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