I'd highly recommend Ed Kilgore's thoughts on different approaches to the politics of national security available to Democrats (though I think his #3 is something of a straw man, whereas #2 and #4 are very real and vibrant strains of thought) and the best way for going forward. What I would add, though, is that I'm not sure how available Ed's number five really is to those Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq back in October 2002. Ed characterizes the best way forward as:
Find ways to compete with Republicans on national security without supporting their policies and positions (e.g., the 2002-2004 Clark/Graham "right idea, wrong target" criticisms of the Iraq invasion as distracting and undermining the legitimate fight against terrorists).
I'll call it Clark/Dean because I think Dean's been unfairly maligned on this score and Graham wound up articulating the really crazy view that we should go to war with Hezbollah. But old fights aside, we could also call it the "John Kerry at his best" strategy:
Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. And when we had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist.
The trouble is that this kind of message, nicely re-enforced by the fact that Rand Beers resigned from the Bush administration in protest over the president's Iraq strategy and wound up working for Kerry, cut against Kerry's actually record. Just a few sentences later, Kerry was shifting into an HRC-like explanation of why his vote in favor of authorizing the war didn't mean he favored the war:
He also said Saddam Hussein would have been stronger. That is just factually incorrect. Two-thirds of the country was a no-fly zone when we started this war. We would have had sanctions. We would have had the U.N. inspectors. Saddam Hussein would have been continually weakening.
If the president had shown the patience to go through another round of resolution, to sit down with those leaders, say, "What do you need, what do you need now, how much more will it take to get you to join us?" we'd be in a stronger place today.
This is, in a vacuum, plausible. It's not, however, consistent with the strategic focus argument since handling Iraq Kerry's way (recall that "there was a right way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and there was a wrong way") still would have entailed the shift in focus away from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and Pakistan and toward Iraq. Consequently, while I think this sort of argument is a great one for Barack Obama and other challengers like Jim Webb who can easily adopt it, folks who backed the war aren't that well-positioned to do so because the strategic focus argument isn't really consistent with trying to wriggle away from a pro-war record by citing the manipulation of intelligence.
All of which is to say that while someone like Dennis Kucinich who opposed the Iraq War because of an extremely dovish overall outlook would still have a very hard time winning an election, someone like Webb or Obama or Dean or Clark who can plausibly claim prescient judgment about what's become an extremely unpopular war is just in a much fundamentally stronger position to go up against a candidate (at either the presidential or congressional level) who's be a die-hard war supporter but not someone who was personally involved in the well-known Rumsfeld-era cavalcade of ineptitude.