Reclaiming the Democratic Agenda

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, May 22, 2006

Though you'd never know it from surfing the Internet, there exists in the Democratic Party a substantial body of politicians and policymakers who believe the U.S. mission in Iraq must be sustained until it succeeds; who want to intensify American attempts to spread democracy in the greater Middle East; and who think that the Army needs to be expanded to fight a long war against Islamic extremism.

Their problem isn't only that some people (mostly Republicans and independents) don't believe they exist. Or that the flamers at would expel them from the party if that were possible. They also face the formidable task of rescuing what they believe is a quintessentially Democratic policy agenda from the wreckage of the Bush administration, so that a future president can do it right.

No, I'm not talking about House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who wants to quickly abandon Iraq, regardless of the consequences; or Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who recently issued a "Democratic Plan to Protect America and Restore Our Leadership in the World" that does not include the word "democracy."

This is about a coalition of mostly younger foreign affairs professionals who held mid-level positions at the State Department and the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and who have spent the past several years formulating a distinctly Democratic response to the post-Sept. 11 era -- as opposed to a one-dimensional critique of President Bush or Iraq. Now they are beginning to gravitate toward some of the centrist Democrats who -- unlike Pelosi or Reid -- might actually emerge as serious presidential candidates in 2008, such as former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.

This month they published a fascinating book that lays out what the foreign policy of a winning campaign by one of those Democrats -- or perhaps Hillary Clinton -- could look like. Sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute, which is an outgrowth of the Clinton-friendly Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), it's called "With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty."

Like most of its authors, editor Will Marshall, a DLC founder who now heads the policy institute, sees himself as reviving the foreign policy of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, who formulated the Democratic response to the totalitarian menace of communism. Jihadism, Marshall says, requires a similar exercise of intellectual muscle. "Democrats have always been at our best when we have defended democratic values against illiberal ideologies," Marshall told me last week. "When we do that we can appeal to a broader public, not only at home but globally."

As Marshall sees it, the rapidly sinking popularity of Bush and the Republican Congress provides Democrats with "their first real opportunity since 9/11 to make the case on national security." The paradox is that Bush has appropriated some of the central themes of the Truman-Kennedy foreign policy -- above all, the emphasis on the global promotion of freedom. Bush has poisoned grass-roots Democratic support for democracy promotion: The book quotes a German Marshall Fund survey showing that Democrats now oppose it by 50 to 43 percent, while Republicans favor it by a margin of 76 to 19.

So Democrats have to start by "reclaiming our own ground," Marshall says. His book proposes two important ways to do that. First, Democrats can clean up the crimes perpetrated by the Bush administration at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the CIA's secret prisons, and restore America's reputation as the world's foremost defender of human rights. They can also end Bush's cynical policy of demanding democracy from enemy regimes such as Iran and Syria while tolerating the continued autocracy of such friends as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In an essay laying out a "grand strategy for the Middle East," former NSC official Kenneth M. Pollack proposes that a Democratic administration take a simple but crucial step that Bush has eschewed: directly linking the $2 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt to the implementation of "a long term plan for political and economic changes."

Unfortunately, Pollack and his fellow Democrats acknowledge, no liberal policy in the Middle East will work if Iraq fails. While Democrats differ over whether the invasion was right, notes an introduction by Marshall and Jeremy Rosner, both national interests and national honor demand that "we not abandon the Iraqi people to chaos and sectarian violence."

"The fact that President Bush and his team have mismanaged virtually every aspect of postwar reconstruction does not justify an immediate or precipitous withdrawal," they say. "Instead we should rally the American people for an extended and robust security and reconstruction presence."

Are those Democrats talking? Yes, indeed: Marshall's group also has ideas on how Democrats can build stronger ties to the Republican-dominated military, revitalize NATO and the United Nations, and reverse Bush's tax cuts in order to modernize and expand the Army. Don't be surprised if, after all the Internet noise fades away, such ideas are at the center of the next presidential campaign.

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