By David Nather
After Bob Dole lost the White House race to President Bill Clinton in 1996, a group of prominent neoconservatives saw a void in foreign policy and decided to fill it. In June 1997, they launched a political organization called the Project for the New American Century, with the goal of promoting “American global leadership.” Conservatives, they said, had criticized Clinton’s policies but had not “confidently advanced a strategic vision of America’s role in the world.”
The group included a few names that are familiar today: Dick Cheney, now vice president; Donald H. Rumsfeld, now Defense secretary; Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy Defense secretary and nominee to head the World Bank; and Jeb Bush, the brother of the future president. Today, the neoconservatives’ brand of foreign policy dominates the thinking of the Republican Party.
Now, given their losses in the 2002 and 2004 elections, it is the Democrats who are trying to fill a void. A growing number of people in and outside the party, including members of Congress and influential foreign policy thinkers, say the Democrats need to find their own, unique foreign policy — and particularly a vision for keeping the country safe from Islamic terrorism. The best way to do that, they say, is to reclaim the party’s Cold War approach of promoting democracy throughout the world, but updating it to address the modern threat from jihadist radicals.
If that sounds a bit like the theme of President Bush’s inaugural address, which called for fighting terrorism at the roots by spreading democracy throughout the Middle East, it’s not a coincidence. Democrats say Bush has done a masterful job of co-opting the themes of the “liberal internationalism” that Democratic presidents once championed and adapting them to neoconservative aims.
To recapture these themes, centrist Democrats and some liberals say their party should articulate a broader approach that presses not only for political changes, but also for economic and social reforms in repressive nations that otherwise could become terrorist havens. The only way the United States can win the war of ideas with Islamist militants, they say, is by offering the citizens of those nations a better alternative. “I think the Democratic Party has to learn to speak in terms of both a domestic and an international vision, both of which are rooted in strength and international leadership,” says retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO who ran unsuccessfully for president last year.
Fighting Old Wars?
But steering the party in a new direction will be difficult. Democrats have largely given up on the kind of lofty internationalist ideals that filled John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, when he pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” These days, many rank-and-file Democrats are suspicious of any talk of becoming the champions of democracy around the world once again, convinced such rhetoric inevitably leads to the kind of military adventurism most of them have rejected since the Vietnam War.
Some Democrats say the spread of democracy was never the true goal of the Iraq war, and they think there is little point in embracing the aftermath of an invasion that has damaged America’s standing in the world.
Moreover, internationalists such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland face competing foreign policy camps within the party. Some Democrats prefer to plug gaps they see in Bush’s policies; others think the best course is to criticize Bush for failing to live up to his rhetoric. And there are Democrats who prefer to keep the party’s focus on domestic policy, which they believe plays to its strengths.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders are in the market for ideas. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California have formed a national security advisory group to shape their policies on global threats such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The group will be headed by William J. Perry, who served as Defense secretary under Clinton.
And though internationalists are showing a great deal of energy, suggesting their influence might increase within the Democratic party much as neoconservatives rose to power among the Republicans, their hard-nosed approach to foreign policy is not broadly popular with party regulars. After all, Democrats picked former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who was against the war in Iraq, as its new national chairman.
Biden, who may run for president in 2008, says he was “a little frustrated” by Democratic colleagues who scoffed at Bush’s inaugural address. In a March 15 speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Biden said Bush was a latecomer to the idea of spreading freedom and his tough talk against dictatorships often is not backed up by his actions. But his focus on democracy “does make a difference,” Biden said, by encouraging forces for change within repressed countries.
Hoyer, meanwhile, says Democrats should commit themselves to “a peaceful, freer, more secure world, using all of the methods available to us.” The key to a new Democratic approach for fighting terror around the world, Hoyer and others say, lies in channeling presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Kennedy.
The internationalists are trying to bring the rest of the party to their side — starting now. They know that any successful effort to transform a party’s policies begins during the off-years, not just during presidential elections. And one place to start, analysts say, is by convincing the Democratic base that foreign policy and national security are issues they should care about in the first place.
Democratic internationalists are promoting their ideas on multiple fronts. Last month, at a House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Clark told the lawmakers that in their policy on Iraq, “We shouldn’t be talking about an exit strategy — we should be talking about success strategies.” That was a clear slap at Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the former president’s brother, who called in January for withdrawing U.S. troops shortly after the elections. Partly on the strength of the Williamsburg speech, Democratic leaders brought Clark to Capitol Hill on March 14 to repeat the message for key foreign policy and national security lawmakers and staff members.
Clark says Democrats should stand for using “the full army of tools at our disposal — not just military power, but international law and diplomacy.” He says the United States should become more active in strengthening the United Nations and NATO, raise more objections to political repression in Saudi Arabia, and pressure Pakistan to crack down on nuclear proliferation and terrorist bases.
The Liberals’ Stake
Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has tried to make Democrats aware of the intellectual underpinnings of such ideas. In a December article that has generated a lot of discussion among Hill Democrats, Beinart argued that liberals should view the war against al Qaeda as consistent with their fight for domestic economic and social justice — much as liberals during the Cold War decided to fight communism because it gave power to their struggle for civil rights and social freedoms at home.
“You have to get the base to look at the periods of greatest liberal progress,” Beinart said in an interview. “They have not, ironically, been the times when liberals have been arguing, ‘Let’s turn inward and solve our problems at home.’ ” Liberals have done best, he said, when their ideas have been “wrapped within the efforts to create a safer world.”
Other outside analysts, meanwhile, have urged Democrats to rethink their policies. The Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist think tank, published a public letter to Democrats calling for a return to “tough-minded internationalism.” The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, published a column called “Taking Back Freedom” that argued liberals should aim to build sustainable democracies overseas through methods such as economic opportunity, civic education and promoting the rule of law.
Similarly, a number of Democrats in Congress have been trying to convince their party that it has reasons to be engaged in foreign policy and national security. “The great struggle of our time — the struggle between freedom and radical Islamic fundamentalism — is primarily a war of ideas and ideals,” Biden said in his speech to the Democratic Leadership Council. The effort will not succeed, he said, without the time-consuming and expensive work of building “the institutions of liberal democracy.”
And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is considered even more likely to run for president in 2008, has distanced herself from Sen. Kennedy’s call for a time limit on the military presence in Iraq. “I think that would be like a green light” for the insurgents she said Feb. 20 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Losing the Mantle
It has been decades since the Democrats fully embraced a world leadership role for the United States. President Woodrow Wilson tried — and failed — to build an international order to preserve the peace, and Roosevelt assembled a massive alliance to defeat the Nazis. The United Nations and NATO were created on Truman’s watch, and his secretary of State, George C. Marshall, developed a package of economic aid to rebuild Europe and fortify it against the spread of communism. President Kennedy created the Peace Corps partly to inspire developing countries to emulate the United States rather than the Soviet Union.
But the fight against communism also led presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson into the Vietnam War — the event that turned most Democrats against an activist foreign policy. Clinton’s decision to intervene in Kosovo was an exception — a time when liberal internationalists gained the upper hand.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, critics say the Democratic Party has run out of things to say on foreign policy.
That was supposed to change last year, when Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts tried to strengthen the Democrats’ foreign policy and national security credentials in his race for the White House. Since his defeat, he has introduced some of his campaign proposals in the Senate this year.
Some Democrats, though, say Kerry failed to shape an overall foreign policy vision for the party. All that came through to voters, they say, was his opposition to Bush’s Iraq policies and a general sense that he would work with other countries. “That’s not a Democratic vision on national security. It’s a method,” says Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, who co-founded a House Democratic study group on national security.
The degree to which Republicans have seized the mantle on foreign policy was underscored by a survey conducted in December by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. The survey showed that 57 percent of those who voted for Bush in 2004 said they believed the United States should have an activist foreign policy. By contrast, the same percentage of voters who cast their ballots for Kerry agreed with the statement, “We should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.”
That is no longer an option in the post-Sept. 11 world, many analysts say, warning that Democrats will not regain power until they come up with a well-rounded vision of foreign policy that can compete with the Republicans.
“Democrats need to think of foreign policy as not just a box that they can check off so they can get back to their domestic issues, but something that’s just as important as anything else they do,” says Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution and former Kerry adviser.
Plenty of Democrats think the whole notion of a single position on foreign policy is absurd, given the party’s diversity of views. They see little hope of a consensus on when to use force in general, even in support of democracy, or whether it was appropriate in Iraq. Indeed, even the top two Democratic leaders in the House have never agreed on the Iraq war. Hoyer supported it; Pelosi was opposed.
“To say ‘Bush has stolen the goodies and we want them back’ is wishful thinking,” says Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re trying to recreate a Democratic Party that no longer exists.” Even if the party agreed on a policy of liberal internationalism, it may be unable to wrest the foreign policy mantle back from Bush. As president, Bush is able to shape the public’s thinking on foreign policy far more than any Democrat currently can.
But right now, whatever momentum exists among Democrats toward a foreign policy vision is behind the internationalist ideas — mainly because there is a vacuum in the rest of the party. That will have to change, analysts say, if the Democrats hope to produce an alternative vision of foreign policy and national security that can compete with the Republicans.
“The neo-Democrats are feeling their oats right now because nothing else is on the table,” says Gelb. “And the Democrats are going to have to put something else on the table — soon.”