Democrats Offer Only Shallow Changes

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as they demonstrated in this week’s televised presidential debate, are firmly against the war in Iraq — Barack earlier but Hillary even more firmly than before. At least that’s what they say. It’s worth remembering that at a much later stage in the campaign in 2000 George W. Bush was touting the virtues of a humbler foreign policy and vowing that a Bush administration would be extremely reluctant to get involved in the ticklish business of nation-building.

However, they showed little or no inclination to look more deeply into the policy assumptions that underlie the war. They affirmed that the United States must remain the leader of the world, that it must keep an eye on Pakistan and help it to become more stable and democratic (having proven in Iraq how good we are at that little chore). They were willing to consider intervention, even military intervention, in Darfur, and the issuance of an ultimatum to Russia to the effect that the sacred independence of Kosovo so recently declared (and of no import to America’s core interests) would be defended with military might if necessary.

Specifically, Sen. Obama veered from a question that was essentially about judgment and experience in foreign affairs and didn’t necessarily require a disquisition on particular policy choices, felt obliged to say this:

"So on Pakistan, during the summer I suggested that not only do we have to take a new approach towards Musharraf but we have to get much more serious about hunting down terrorists that are currently in northwestern Pakistan.

"And many people said at the time well, you can’t target those terrorists because Musharraf is our ally and we don’t want to offend him. In fact, what we had was neither stability in Pakistan nor democracy in Pakistan, and had we pursued a policy that was looking at democratic reforms in Pakistan we would be much further along now than we are. So on the critical issues that actually matter I believe that my judgment has been sound and it has been judgment that I think has been superior to Senator Clinton’s as well as Senator McCain’s."

To be sure, Sen. Obama did not, as he clarified later for Sen. Clinton, essentially say that we should be bombing Pakistan whether Pakistan likes it or not. But he did say "we have to get much more serious about hunting down terrorists," which means either direct intervention, indirect intervention, or active bullying of the Pakistani government to do it for us – in an area that no central government in Pakistan has ever effectively ruled.

Obama was as vague as usual on just what concrete policies might be implied by the admonition to pursue "a policy that was looking at democratic reforms in Pakistan." But it’s not especially humble to be dictating policy to another country, even if it is ostensibly good policy in the abstract.

Sen. Clinton was no more humble. In response she bragged that:

"Well, I have put forth my extensive experience in foreign policy, you know, helping to support the peace process in Northern Ireland, negotiating to open borders so that refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing would be safe, going to Beijing and standing up for women’s rights as human rights and so much else."

Those all sound pretty fine in the abstract, and perhaps they were helpful to the cause of human rights and perhaps even to the countries in question if the country is Northern Ireland. But they have little or nothing to do with the core interests of the United States of defending our territory from attack and minimizing the dangers that Americans face from foreign troublemakers. It seems to be a tenet of the people we call "liberal" in this country that they will use the hard and soft power of the United States abroad mainly if U.S. core interests are not involved. To focus on U.S. interests would be selfish, you see.

A bit later on, in response to a question about al-Qaeda possibly being reconstituted in Iraq after a U.S. troop withdrawal, Sen. Obama wasn’t all that shy about considering yet another intervention:

"Now, I think that we can be in a partnership with Iraq to ensure the stability and the safety of the region, to ensure the safety of Iraqis and to meet our national security interests."

To be sure, he followed that up by saying "we have to send a clear signal to the Iraqi government that we are not going to be there permanently." The assumption, however, that because he is a Democrat he would be able to undertake a quick get in, promote stability and get out operation is worthy of plenty of skepticism..

Later, the conversation turned to Russia, and both candidates seemed to be saying that Putin is an authoritarian baddie (true enough), but to complain that it was because the Bush policy toward Russia was "incoherent" (Clinton) and faulty because, as Obama put it, referring to Bush:

"He then proceeded to neglect our relationship with Russia at a time when Putin was strangling any opposition in the country when he was consolidating power, rattling sabers against his European neighbors, as well as satellites of the former Soviet Union. And so we did not send a signal to Mr. Putin that, in fact, we were going to be serious about issues like human rights, issues like international cooperation that were critical to us. That is something that we have to change. "

The implication is that somehow, if the U.S. had been more "engaged" with Russia in a constructive way, maybe Putin wouldn’t have turned so authoritarian, as if words from Obama, more than from Condi Rice, would have been more persuasive in causing Putin to abandon what he perceived to be his self-interest. The implicit assumption is that somehow American influence can be a magical tool to bring about sweetness and light in the world at large.

One might hope, if one of these two becomes president, that he (or she) would begin an orderly withdrawal from Iraq as quickly as feasible. But it’s dispiriting that neither is ready even to begin the process of questioning whether the United States needs to keep troops in so many countries of the world or to view the rest of the world as merely a province of the United States, cosseted by the watchful eye of the Mother Eagle.

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).