|It's Uphill for the Democrats
They Need a Global Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq
By Tony Smith
Sunday, March 11, 2007
THE Democrats' victory last November obviously reflected popular sentiment
against the war in Iraq, but nothing seems obvious now as Democrats try to
exploit their new majority status in Congress.
Iraq had flustered the congressional Democrats because Democrats don't have
an agreed position on what America's role in the world should be. They want
to change the Bush administration's policy in Iraq without discussing the
underlying ideas that produced it. And although they now cast themselves as
alternatives to President Bush, the fact is that prevailing Democratic
doctrine is not that different from the Bush-Cheney doctrine.
Many Democrats, including senators who voted to authorize the war in Iraq,
embraced the idea of muscular foreign policy based on American global
supremacy and the presumed right to intervene to promote democracy or to
defend key U.S. interests long before 9/11, and they have not changed
course since. Even those who have shifted against the war have avoided
But without a coherent alternative to the Bush doctrine, with its
confidence in America's military preeminence and the global appeal of "free
market democracy," the Democrats' midterm victory may not be repeated in
November 2008. Or, if the Democrats do win in 2008, they could remain
staked to a vision of a Pax Americana strikingly reminiscent of Bush's.
Democratic adherents to what might be called the "neoliberal" position are
well organized and well positioned. Their credo was enunciated just nine
years ago by Madeleine Albright, then President Bill Clinton's secretary of
state: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the
indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further into the future."
She was speaking of Bosnia at the time, but her remark had much wider
Since 1992, the ascendant Democratic faction in foreign policy debates has
been the thinkers associated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)
and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). Since 2003, the
PPI has issued repeated broadsides damning Bush's handling of the Iraq war,
but it has never condemned the invasion. It has criticized Bush's failure
to achieve U.S. domination of the Middle East, arguing that Democrats could
do it better.
Consider a volume published last spring and edited by Will Marshall,
president of the PPI since 1989. The book, "With All Our Might: A
Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty,"
contains essays by 19 liberal Democrats.
"Make no mistake," write Marshall and Jeremy Rosner in their introduction,
"we are committed to preserving America's military preeminence. We
recognize that a strong military undergirds U.S. global leadership."
Recalling a Democratic "tradition of muscular liberalism," they insist that
"Progressives and Democrats must not give up the promotion of democracy and
human rights abroad just because President Bush has paid it lip service.
Advancing democracy -- in practice, not just in rhetoric -- is
fundamentally the Democrats' legacy, the Democrats' cause, and the
In the volume, a Muslim American calls on us to prevail in the "cosmic war"
with terrorism by winning "The Struggle for Islam's Soul." Stephen Solarz
worries about Pakistan; Anne-Marie Slaughter would "Reinvent the U.N."
Larry Diamond and Michael McFaul defend "Seeding Liberal Democracy."
Kenneth Pollack, whose 2002 book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for
Invading Iraq," was as influential as any single writing in urging the
invasion of Iraq, presents "A Grand Strategy for the Middle East."
"For better or worse, whether you supported the war or not, it is all about
Iraq now," writes Pollack. The goal of this Democrat who helped bring us
Iraq? "The end state that America's grand strategy toward the Middle East
must envision is a new liberal order to replace a status quo marked by
political repression, economic stagnation and cultural conflict." His
problem with the Bush administration? "It has not made transformation its
highest goal. . . . Iran and Syria's rogue regimes seem to be the only
exceptions. The administration insists on democratic change there in a
manner it eschews for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other allies. . . . The
right grand strategy would make transformation of our friends and our foes
alike our agenda's foremost issue."
This is not a fringe group. Many prominent Democrats are PPI stalwarts,
including Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Evan Bayh, Thomas R. Carper and
Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic
Congressional Campaign Committee, published a book last year, "The Plan:
Big Ideas for America," co-authored by Bruce Reed, editor of the PPI's
magazine Blueprint and president of the DLC.
Emanuel and Reed salute Marshall's "outstanding anthology" for its
"refreshingly hardnosed and intelligent new approach . . . which breathes
new life into the Democratic vision of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman,
and John Kennedy." Not a word in their book appears hostile to the idea of
invading Iraq. Instead, the authors fault Bush for allowing a "troop gap"
to develop (they favor increasing the Army by 100,000 and expanding the
Marines and Special Forces) and for failing to "enlist our allies in a
common mission." The message once again is that Democrats could do it better.
In fact, these neoliberals are nearly indistinguishable from the
better-known neoconservatives. The neocons' think tank, the Project for the
New American Century (PNAC), often salutes individuals within the PPI, and
PPI members such as Marshall signed PNAC petitions endorsing the Iraq
invasion. Weeks after "With All Our Might" appeared, the Weekly Standard,
virtually the PNAC house organ, gave it a thumbs-up review. And why not?
The PPI and PNAC are tweedledum and tweedledee.
Sources for many of the critical elements of the Bush doctrine can be found
in the emergence of neoliberal thought during the 1990s, after the end of
the Cold War. In think tanks, universities and government offices,
left-leaning intellectuals, many close to the Democratic Party, formulated
concepts to bring to fruition the age-old dream of Democratic President
Woodrow Wilson "to make the world safe for democracy." These neolibs
advocated the global expansion of "market democracy." They presented
empirical, theoretical, even philosophical arguments to support the idea of
the United States as the indispensable nation. Albright's self-assured
declaration descended directly from traditional Wilsonianism.
Talking in the refined language of the social sciences about "democratic
peace theory," neolibs such as Bruce Russett at Yale maintained that a
world of democracies would mean the end of war. Neolibs such as Larry
Diamond at Stanford also posited the "universal appeal of democracy,"
suggesting that "regime change" leading to "the democratic transition" was
a manageable undertaking. Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton asserted that
"rogue states" guilty of systematic human-rights abuses or that built
weapons of mass destruction had only "conditional sovereignty" and were
legally open to attack. These views were echoed in the columns of Thomas
Friedman of the New York Times. Here was the intellectual substance of much
of the Bush doctrine, coming from non-Republicans.
Dealing with Serbia in the 1990s cemented the neocon-neolib entente. By
Sept. 11, 2001, these two groups had converged as a single ideological
family. They agreed that American nationalism was best expressed in world
affairs as a progressive imperialism. The rallying call for armed action
would be promoting human rights and democratic government among peoples who
resisted American hegemony.
And so we may appreciate the Democrats' difficulty in their search for an
exit strategy not only from Iraq but also from the temptations of a superpower.
Ironically, the neolibs are more powerful today in the Democratic Party
than the neocons are among Republicans. Senior Republicans such as Brent
Scowcroft, James A. Baker III and the late Gerald R. Ford seem more
skeptical about an American bid for world supremacy than do comparable
senior Democrats. "I can understand the theory of wanting to free people,"
Ford told Bob Woodward in 2004. But the former president doubted "whether
you can detach that from the obligation number one of what's in our
national interest. And I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation
around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our
There is a precedent for the Democrats' dilemma as 2008 approaches. When
Richard M. Nixon ran for president 40 years ago, he, too, needed to
formulate a policy that distinguished him from the unpopular war in Vietnam
prosecuted by an unpopular Democratic administration. He promised that "a
new leadership will end the war," hinting that he had a secret plan to do
so. But it turned out that Nixon's "new leadership" was as committed to
prevailing in Southeast Asia as Lyndon B. Johnson had been.
The early positions of the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates
illustrate their party's problem. The front-runner, Hillary Clinton, has
not moved from her traditional support of the DLC's basic position -- she
criticizes the conduct of the war, but not the idea of the war. Former
senator John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama are more outspoken; both call
the war a serious mistake, but neither has articulated a vision for a more
modest U.S. role in the world generally.
It isn't easy to offer a true alternative. The challenges to world order
are many, as are the influential special interests in this country that
want an aggressive policy: globalizing corporations, the
military-industrial complex, the pro-Israel lobbies, those who covet Middle
Eastern oil. The nationalist conviction that we are indeed "the
indispensable nation" will continue to tempt our leaders to overplay their
hand. The danger lies in believing that our power is beyond challenge, that
the righteousness of our goals is beyond question and that the real task is
not to reformulate our role in the world so much as to assert more
effectively a global American peace.
Tony Smith, a political science professor at Tufts University, is
the author of "A Pact With the Devil: Washington's Bid for World Supremacy
and the Betrayal of the American Promise" (Routledge).