One primary election and one caucus down, and only 48 states to go. The quadrennial U.S. presidential election process, front-loaded this year as never before, is well underway. By the time the candidates of the two major parties (with one or more viable third-party candidates a real possibility) have been officially nominated, most Americans should have a relatively clear understanding of what those candidates, and the parties they represent, stand for.

In a year when “change” is being described as the quintessential key to electoral success, this increased public comprehension of important issues should be a major step forward on the long and tortuous road toward the “more perfect Union” envisioned in the preamble to the Constitution.

It must not be assumed, though, that all changes are necessarily for the better. Most military experts, and a growing number of political pundits, now seem to agree, for example, that an immediate withdrawal of most or all U.S. troops from Iraq immediately after inauguration of the next U.S. president, as some Democratic candidates previously had been urging, might not be such a good idea after all.

On the other hand, it does seem increasingly probable that there will be at least a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq this year, with a larger phased withdrawal of additional troops promised for next year. If that turns out to be the case, a carefully considered and phased reduction in U.S. defense spending also might be justified. The possibility that the funds made available from these defense cutbacks might be used to lower the national debt is not yet being seriously considered, though, and it will be difficult for either party to resist proposals to use the so-called defense “savings” to fund at least a few politically popular domestic programs.

The Voice of the American People

So far, fortunately, no candidate in either of the two major political parties has called for a parallel reduction in funding for homeland-security and domestic-preparedness programs – just the opposite, in fact. Thanks in large part to Hurricane Katrina and other weather disasters, the bridge collapse in Minnesota, the fires in California, and a broad spectrum of other mass-casualty events and incidents – including the abortive 2001 anthrax attack on the U.S. Senate – the American people now seem to recognize the need to invest even more funds in homeland defense than have been allocated in recent years.

In keeping with the intuitive recognition that homeland defense begins at home, it can be taken for granted that almost all Americans – and their elected representatives in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate – would approve additional spending for state and local domestic-preparedness programs. Numerous polls and surveys show almost equally strong support for rebuilding, maintaining, and protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, for the recruiting and training of additional firefighters, law-enforcement personnel, and other first responders, and for the development, testing, and fielding of new communications, detection, and sensor systems of all types.

The voice of the American people is being heard every day on all of these matters – and on a great deal more. Except for the War of 1812 the American homeland was virtually immune from foreign attack for more than two centuries. There were a number of terrorist attacks during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, but these were relatively few and far between – and except for the first (1993) attack on the World Trade Center almost always occurred overseas.

These are important truths that politicians at all levels of government should keep in mind during this election year. The word “change” seems to imply new, different, better. But it is none of these if it is a change back – to old ways of thinking, to defense and homeland-security policies that did not work before and would not work now, to a rejection of the many recent adverse changes in world affairs that have occurred in recent years.

What is really needed, it should be obvious, is a change in thinking. Instead of reacting to events after being taken by surprise – once again – the nation’s leadership, in both the legislative and executive branches of government, would be well advised to plan, in advance, to meet a broad spectrum of worst-case scenarios that threaten the life, liberty, and happiness of the American people. That truly would be a change for the better, and one worthy of universal respect. 

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.

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