If Power Shifts In 2008

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By Robert Kagan
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Could the United States be better off with a Democrat in the White House in 2009? Here are a couple of reasons the answer might be yes, even if you're not a Democrat.

The Democrats need to take ownership of American foreign policy again, for their sake as well as the country's. Long stretches in opposition sometimes drive parties toward defeatism, utopianism, isolationism or permutations of all three. What starts off as legitimate attacks on the inevitable errors of the party in power can veer off into a wholesale rejection of the opposition party's own foreign policy principles. Republicans in the 1990s, after supporting an expansive internationalism under Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, drifted toward quasi-isolationism against the Clinton administration's quasi-internationalism. During Woodrow Wilson's two terms, the internationalist party of Theodore Roosevelt began transforming itself into the isolationist party of William Borah. During the Nixon-Ford years, the party of John F. Kennedy became the party of George McGovern.

Eight years of Bill Clinton brought the Democrats mostly out of their post-Vietnam trauma and revived liberal interventionism. But the George W. Bush years have driven many back. Buffeted between the administration's failures and their party's left-wing critics, the Clintonites either disavowed what they once believed or kept their heads down. Lately they're starting to show signs of life and could still take the reins again if the right Democrat won in 2008. That wouldn't be such a bad thing. No one can claim any more that the old Clinton foreign policy team is less competent than the Republicans who succeeded it. But what happens to these Democrats if their standard-bearer loses in 2008?

The case for electing a Democrat is not only to save the party's soul, though that's a worthy task, but to pull the country together to face the difficult times ahead. The last time the Democrats were in office, the world seemed a comparatively manageable place. They have not yet had to deal with the post-Sept. 11 world. Since the only post-Sept. 11 foreign policy Americans know is Bush's, many believe -- especially many Democrats -- that if only Bush weren't president, the world would be manageable again. Allies could be easily summoned for the struggle against al-Qaeda or to bring pressure on Iran or to replace American troops in Iraq. Threats could be addressed without force, through skillful diplomacy and soft power. Maybe some of the threats would disappear.

This is fantasy. The next president, whether Democrat or Republican, may work better with allies and may be more clever in negotiating with adversaries. But the realities of the world are what they are, and the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy are what they are. The diffuse threats of the post-Cold War world simply don't unite and energize our European allies as the Soviet Union did, and even a dedicated "multilateralist" won't be able to get them to spend more money on defense or stop buying oil from Iran. A smarter negotiating strategy toward Iran might or might not make a difference in stopping its weapons program. Soft power will go only so far in dealing with problems such as North Korea and Sudan.

In fact, the options open to any new administration are never as broad as its supporters imagine, which is why, historically, there is more continuity than discontinuity in American foreign policy. If the Democrats did take office in 2009, their approach to the post-Sept. 11 world would be marginally different but not stunningly different from Bush's. And they would have to sell that not stunningly different set of policies to their own constituents.

In this respect 2008 would be another 1952. The Republican Party had been out of power for 20 years when Dwight Eisenhower took office, through Munich, World War II and the first years of the Cold War. Many Republicans imagined that everything that went wrong in the world during those two decades was the fault of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats. FDR "tricked" us into war with Japan. Then he gave away Eastern Europe at Yalta. Then Harry Truman adopted the disastrous strategy of containment. These were the years when Joe McCarthy, Robert Taft and anti-containment "realists" such as Walter Lippmann flourished. But when Ike and the Republicans finally took over management of the Cold War, years of railing against "cowardly containment" gave way to broad if shaky acceptance.

The country could benefit from a similar passing of the baton in the 2008 presidential election. At the end of the day, of course, a president's personal qualities and worldview are usually more important than the party she or he represents. The Democrats, like the Republicans, could nominate a candidate no sensible person would entrust with American foreign policy. For that matter, the Republicans could nominate someone capable of winning broad Democratic support, which would partly address the debilitating national divide on foreign policy. But eventually America's post-Sept. 11 foreign policy will probably be better if both parties have a shot at shaping it.

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, writes a monthly column for The Post.


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