September 17, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Big Ideas

The crowd of Democratic presidential aspirants continues to grow, and it includes not just the usual gaggle of lawyers but also a doctor, a minister and a 4-star general. Leading Republicans acknowledge that whoever the challenger turns out to be, he (or she) is likely to give President Bush a run for his money.

So why is the presidential race so boring?

The answer may be this: No one is proposing any Big Ideas. The Democrats seem instead to be competing to see who can hurl the nastiest insults at Bush. (So far, at least, they have refrained from such jibes as “Your mother wears army boots” — but that may be because even Howard Dean is reluctant to tangle with Barbara Bush.)

As for President Bush, his message seems to be that everything is fine — and besides it's getting better.

So here, for whichever candidates may be reading this, are four Big Ideas that can be yours absolutely free – if you act now.

Stop funding terrorism: We are currently devoting about 1.5% of our Gross Domestic Product on the War on Terrorism — including Iraq. (By comparison, we spent 130% of GDP on World War II and 12% on Vietnam.) The problem, however, is that we're also funding the terrorism, for example every time we buy Saudi oil. Why doesn't a presidential candidate pledge to launch a “Manhattan Project” for energy independence and national security?

The goal would be to free the U.S. from dependence on oil from parts of the world where Americans are hated. Supplying our own energy needs domestically also would mean more jobs at home. The fastest way to accomplish this: Build safe nuclear power plants (as the French and Japanese already have done), and utilize American coal (which can now be burned cleanly). Also, promote new technologies — e.g. hybrid vehicles, and invest in even higher-tech solutions — e.g. waste-to-fuel and fuel cells. (For more on these ideas go to the web site of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security,

Develop a corps of nation builders: The same combat troops that on April 30th were hunting Saddam Hussein's elite forces were expected on May 1st to be guarding museums and conducting seminars on Roberts Rules of Order. That's like trying to build houses with wrecking crews.

Perhaps it's time the United States had a corps of people trained as peace keepers and “nation builders.” Those most likely to succeed at such tasks will probably not be soldiers trained to kill and destroy.

So why not invent something called … oh, I don't know … how about: The Peace Corps? Wait a minute — that already exists. But what does it do? At Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., a sign reads: “You could spend two years teaching children in South Africa and discover you're the one who's learned the most.” Therein lies the problem.

The Peace Corps today is largely what it was when it was founded in the Camelot Era — a marvelous adventure for liberal arts graduates who haven't yet decided whether to devote their lives to poetry or tax law. But the Peace Corps doesn't do peace-making or peace-keeping, and it doesn't have the skills to help host countries build the institutions of a modern state (e.g. an independent judiciary, a free press, a free maket and constitutional guarantees of religious tolerance and minority rights).

Why not re-fashion this antiquated tool for use in the 21st century? Why not recruit administrators, teachers, engineers, bankers, lawyers, businessmen, public health professionals and police? Why not have such a Peace (and Democracy?) Corps ready to deploy in places like Iraq, Liberia and Kosovo?

Wipe out terrorist training camps: Recruiting terrorists is one thing. Training them is another. Well-trained terrorists pilot jet aircraft. Badly-trained terrorists attempt to light their sneakers while the flight attendant is doing beverage service. A tough-minded presidential candidate would pledge to put foreign governments (e.g. Syria, Lebanon) on notice: Shut down the training camps on your territory or we'll find a way to do it for you.

Fix the immigration mess: In the aftermath of 9/11, is it really so much to ask that guests from abroad be required to carry government-issued identification cards? These cards should say clearly who these visitors are, why they here and how long they're staying. Such cards must include biometric indicators so they can't be falsified. If this can't be done for all foreign visitors immediately, start with those who come from parts of the world where anti-American vitriol gushes like oil from a desert well. That's not profiling. That's common sense.

Reform the UN: Why are American taxpayers generously funding an organization dedicated to undermining vital U.S. interests? Why is the US supporting an organization that allows a terrorist-sponsoring dictatorship like Syria to sit on the Security Council while an outlaw like Libya chairs the UN Human Rights commission? Is there not one presidential candidate bold enough to vow that there will be UN reform – or the UN will be allowed to go the way of the League of Nations?

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.