Out-Toughing the Republicans

The most dismaying development at the ongoing Democratic convention so far is the effort to convince Americans that the Democrats would be tougher than the Republicans on the issues of war, peace and national security. This essentially means that those who question the war in Iraq have no place to go if they want to vote in November for somebody with a chance of winning. While those of us who do question the war won’t be denied the right to speak, write and question – and by doing so we might even affect the course of the major-party campaign – it probably means that serious and widespread debate on the war and on the future course of American foreign policy will be seriously constricted.

This is not the end of the world. The notion that elections in America make a huge difference is more than somewhat overrated. But it is sad, because an opportunity to affect the climate of opinion – one for which I suspect the American people are more ready than most pols and pundits suspect – is likely to be lost.

It’s odd in a way. Surveys show that about 90 percent of the delegates to the convention oppose the war in Iraq. But from the speakers’ podium – with the notable exception of Rev. Al Sharpton, who also went on for 20 minutes instead of the six minutes or so he had been allocated in the schedule – the tone was tough and unremitting.


So there was vice presidential nominee John-Boy Edwards, in his speech Wednesday night, promising that "when we’re in office, it won’t take us three years to get the reforms in our intelligence we need to protect our country. We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to make sure that [September 11] never happens again… ." He promised to "strengthen and modernize our military," to "double our Special Forces, and invest in the new equipment and technologies so that our military remains the best equipped and best trained in the world."

Whether Osama bin Laden trembled in his cave when Edwards looked into the camera and promised, "You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you" is open to question.

What is going on here?

With politicians the likelihood of deception can seldom be discounted. Perhaps it is all a facade served up for a television audience that, according to mainstream pundits, is yearning to be reassured that a Kerry administration will "protect" us more vigorously than the inept and stubborn Bush administration has been able to do.

Perhaps, if Sen. Kerry is elected, he will revert to the peacenik posture he assumed after serving in Vietnam (and the apparent dominant sentiment of his party) and gut the military, set an early date to withdraw from Iraq, focus on reviving the Kyoto treaty and the International Criminal Court, and turn foreign policy over to Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder.

Given a fair amount of evidence, however, that seems unlikely. The delegates may hate the war, but Kerry, Edwards and their foreign policy advisers will be in power, just as Wolfowitz and his merry band, rather than Republicans who had thrilled to campaign promises about a humbler foreign policy and an end to utopian nation-building, were in charge.


First is the evidence from the candidates themselves. Although they voted against the $87 billion appropriation to fund ongoing operations in Iraq, both Sens. Kerry and Edwards voted to give the president essentially a blank check in Iraq.

While they might not have attacked Iraq in the way President Bush did, both believe that now that we are there we must devote sufficient resources – they say more than the current administration would – to nation-building. Mr. Kerry has said he would send more troops to Afghanistan. Kerry’s advisers include few who question the expansive role in the world the United States has taken on since the end of the Cold War.

The name most often mentioned as secretary of state in a potential Kerry administration is Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton’s ambassador the United Nations and before that negotiator of a still-tenuous peace in Bosnia (where U.S. troops are still bogged down). In a recent briefing for foreign diplomats, Kerry adviser Rand Beers (who was on the Bush anti-terrorism team until quite recently), said "In many ways, the goals of the two administrations are in fact not all that different." The differences are likely to be in style rather than substance.

Other Kerry advisers include Delaware Sen. Joe Biden (whose name also comes up as a possible secretary of state), and Jonathan Winer. As Josh Marshall describes them, "they’re a close-knit group, many of them veterans of the Clinton Administration." Among them are State Department veteran Ron Asmus, former State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin, former national security council staffers James Steinberg and Ivo Daalder, and Nancy Stetson of Kerry’s Senate staff.

The July/August issue of The Atlantic has the interesting piece I’ve just quoted by Joshua Marshall that tries to tease out what a Kerry foreign policy might look like. It is mildly frustrating in that after talking with a substantial number of Kerry advisers over several months no really clear picture emerges. But interestingly enough, Marshall comes away with the impression that a Kerry policy might look something like the policies of Bush I, especially insofar as these are embodied by former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft. Marshall mentions this to Dan Feldman, who was tasked early this year with assembling a foreign policy team for Kerry.

"Wondering how he would take it, I said to Feldman," Marshall writes, "’What you’re describing to me sounds a lot like what I’d expect from Brent Scowcroft’.
"’Yes,’ he said. ‘I think a lot of what you’d see from a Kerry administration might be like that. I think there’d be a lot of similarities.’ When I later made the same suggestion to Kerry’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Rand Beers, he agreed."


Kerry-Edwards advisers say they would make more use of other countries and international organizations like the UN and NATO, in contrast to the "unilateral" Bush approach. But their proposals in Iraq closely resemble what the Bush administration has actually done – get the UN more involved – when that seemed expedient. And however charming (or obsequious) Mr. Kerry might be toward European leaders, it is an open question whether he could get significant commitments from them.
The Iraqi insurgents have shown themselves quite willing to attack and kill military and civilian personnel from countries other than the United States. French and German leaders, knowing their populations overwhelmingly oppose the occupation of Iraq, are well aware of this. A President Kerry might be able to get some token troops from them, but it seems unlikely it would be enough to lift the U.S. burden significantly – unless, of course, the United States were to do the sensible thing and start withdrawing troops on January 1, or tomorrow.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing one derives from Marshall’s Atlantic article is that a number of Kerry’s advisers understand that the jihadist terrorist threat is something different from the standard state-to-state military and diplomatic challenge the neoconservatives surrounding Bush seem to want to see as the model. That suggests the possibility of a little more flexibility and an end to the Bush approach of using the military as the first, last and only resort.

It’s hard to tell if they have gone as far in their rethinking as Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke, two conservatives with long experience in government, who have written a marvelous new book I have only begun to digest, America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order (Cambridge). In their book, Halper and Clarke note that "in the age of the Internet, cellular communications technology, miniaturization technology, mass airline transportation, and global financial transfer networks, modern terrorism has been ‘democratized’ in the sense that attacks can be mounted through virtual networks without the need for state resources or centralized leadership structures. Whereas Abu Nidal needed the support of the various Libyan People’s Bureaus to communicate securely and to make financial transactions, this support is no longer needed. The first director of British Intelligence’s Counter Terrorism Center told us that he now believes that ‘state sponsorship’ is an obsolescent idea."


Despite a few differences, however, what is striking is how similar a Kerry approach to world affairs is likely to be to a Bush approach. The Kerryites might not have the moral smugness and stubbornness that characterizes the Bushies, but they seem to have little doubt that America must play an expansive role in the world, settling regional disputes and imposing democracy whenever possible, but doing it (as they would view it) more realistically and effectively. The notion of a truly humble foreign policy, let alone one whose default position is non-intervention unless an imminent threat is demonstrated seems – well, foreign.

The fact that the Republican and Democratic approaches to Iraq and terrorism differ mainly as to emphasis and tone is troubling. Recent polls suggest that not only the vast majority of Democratic delegates but a majority of Americans overall now believe the Iraq war was a mistake. The issue deserves wide-ranging debate and discussion during this election campaign.

It is somewhat encouraging that Michael Moore has received so much publicity (and made so much money) with his film. But I think his thesis is fundamentally flawed. I suspect we are in Iraq not so much to help Halliburton (although I’m sure many in the administration view that as a nice side-effect), but because of the ideological ambitions of a relatively small group of neoconservatives. The besetting sin of leftists is to see evil mainly in business power and to be less concerned about overweening government power. But Halliburton couldn’t have started or waged this war, however much they might end up profiting from it. It took a government.

If the Democrats continue to try to run as tougher than Republicans, those who question preventive war and over-assertiveness might find that only Ralph Nader is available as a semi-viable protest candidate in a campaign with little real discussion of the most important issue of our times. That would be a shame.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).