It's Uphill for the Democrats

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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 doctrinal questions.

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 implications.

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 Democrats' responsibility."

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 national security."

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@tufts.edu

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).


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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