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Outlook: Democrats' Iraq Plan Just Treats the Symptoms

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Tony Smith
Political Science Department Chair, Tufts University
Monday, March 12, 2007; 12:00 PM

Author Tony Smith, chair of the Tufts University political science department, was online Monday, March 12, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about his Sunday Outlook article about on the need for Democrats to move beyond addressing current conflicts to challenge fundamental ideas about America's role in the world.

It's Uphill for the Democrats: They Need a Global Strategy, Not Just Tactics for Iraq ( Post, March 11)

The transcript follows.

Smith is the author of " A Pact with the Devil: Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise."

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Washington: A great article about what's happening and not happening in our political culture vis a vis America's role in the world -- but you don't really offer much in the way of an alternative, except a more "modest" profile. First, what does that really mean? And second, can a politician in wartime America who talks about "modest" power win the confidence of American voters? This seems an especially heavy burden for Democrats, who are seen as somewhat weak by large swaths of the electorate. Many thanks.

Tony Smith: The alternative view needs to be considered, it seems to me, once the reasons for the present calamity are clearly grasped. But the problem is that no one grasping the reasons for the calamity can hope to win election, for they show the United States to be a rogue state. You don't win elections saying that kind of thing. I would say with McGovern "Come Home, America," get our inequalities economically in shape, declare energy independence, be green and the like. And in saying so I'd surely lose the election! Thanks for the question.

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Washington: Former student of yours from Tufts here -- took your Ethnicity and Foreign Policy class. I was wondering who (if anyone) in the Democratic party has proposed a strong, reasonable alternative to the Bush Doctrine? In your view, has the more liberal Center for American Progress done a better job of challenging the administration and proposing such an alternative than the PPI?

Tony Smith: I have to confess not knowing the Center for American Progress. Perhaps it has. The problem is that the Democrats at this point do not want to debate an alternative to the Bush Doctrine -- they hope to win the next election by being antiwar without formulating an alternative. That may be smart politics, but it is unnerving to the rest of the world! Long live ethnicity and foreign policy!

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Falls Church, Va.: Many congressional Democrats don't have an ideological position that contrasts with the neocons, but the Democratic base surely does. The ascendant voice within the party is the one that opposed going into Iraq in the first place, instead of finishing the job with bin Laden and his mob. We had the world behind us until we screwed the whole thing up. The base wants to see us return to tackling big issues, rather than pandering to the big interests. And we do have a candidate for 2008, and he wants us out of Iraq by the time he takes office. The base agrees.

Tony Smith: Yes, there are candidates who want us out. But since we won't be out -- Bush will veto these efforts -- it is an easy position to adopt, in the meantime not saying anything about what comes after Iraq. Could be Iran! Nixon went from Vietnam to Cambodia and Laos remember -- all the while saying he would end the War!

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Thanks for taking my question. Doesn't your book just bring a fresh face to what the U.S. historically has done since WWII, a strategy of using fear of Soviet communism and cultural and business insensitivity against poor countries? Ergo Che Guevaras are born and bred by us.

Tony Smith: Yes and no: Yes in that the invasion of Iraq was indeed in the U.S. foreign policy tradition of many ways even before WWII, but no in that here for the first time was a bid for world supremacy. Iraq was about controlling the "Broader Middle East" and thereby facing down Chinese or Russian bids to rival us. The extent of the ambition was gargantuan in a way other interventions were not in my judgment.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Mr. Smith, Do you think that neoliberal/neocon Democrats -- mostly intellectuals with little military experience -- are losing influence to the emerging group of Democratic military veterans like Sen. Jim Webb, Rep. Jim Waltz, Wes Clark, Eric Massa, Rep. Sestak and others who can challenge policies like preventative war from a more credible military perspective? Thanks!

Tony Smith: I wish I knew the answer to that. I hope so! And I hope my piece contributes to their understanding of the dangerous elements that exist at the heart of the Party so that they can see their way clear to avoiding the PPI/DLC crowd on foreign policy matters. But I do not know the thinking of these various Reps, and I do know that they will find that the PPI fights hard for its positions.

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New York: Just wanted to make the comment that I think it's great that they have a lot of different ideas and aren't marching behind one single banner. The past six years have shown us what happens when you follow the vision of one small group of people. Additionally, I don't understand how the Democrats are expected to put forward all these plans when they aren't the executive. Republicans didn't move the country in any direction when they controlled Congress but President Clinton controlled the pen. What is the purpose of saying your plan all the time when it has no hope of happening? Save it for the campaign.

Tony Smith: Even in the campaign I expect they will be antiwar, but unclear on what they would do afterward. While we should hope someone of vision -- a statesman in the fullest sense of the word -- will emerge, political calculations usually trump all. Maybe this will be the test for Obama, but in meeting it he may lose politically...

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Sewickley, Pa.: I approached your piece with some skepticism but was pleasantly surprised by your even-handedness. What really struck me was your assertion that "ironically, the neolibs are more powerful today in the Democratic Party than the neocons are among Republicans." My husband was sent to liberate grateful Iraqis in 2003. Thankfully he came home in one piece, but with a jaded view of spreading democracy through invasion. I cringe every time I hear liberal calls for military action around the world to stop genocide, deliver aid, promote human rights and on and on. Yes, these are lofty ideals but I still am trying to figure out how 19-year-old Marines are supposed to sort out centuries-old problems in alien cultures halfway around the world. Are there any Democratic/Independent think tanks that you believe are doing good work to act as balance against the neolibs?

Tony Smith: An excellent question, the sentiments of which I totally agree with. My work has been directed toward finding those powerful elements among the Democrats that think like neocons. I do not know their opponents, but their opponents are to be found too in the ranks of Republicans, such as Chuck Hagel and Brent Scowcroft and James Baker. My belief is that most Democrats are lying low and just being antiwar. My concern is to "out" the neolib agenda, whose advocates include Hillary C., who hope to take power in 2009. Thanks for your question.

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Washington: For the first time in world history, a nation that supports the values of democracy, freedom, and liberty dominates the scene. My view is that we need to do everything we can to ensure that those values are promoted and accepted throughout the world. It seems to me that most Americans from both parties share that view. We will make some mistakes in aggressively promoting democratic values and fighting tyranny, but our mission is noble. Why do you disagree?

Tony Smith: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is, these noble sentiments can cause far more harm than good when they mask ulterior motives of a will to power, are self-righteous and demean others. That is the problem with the Bush Doctrine in my opinion.

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Lyme, Conn.: There is one candidate, Chris Dodd, who has always struck me as having a sense of our role in the world. He is the only candidate to have served in both the military and the Peace Corps, and he entered politics with a sound understanding of the role of compassion in obtaining the respect of other countries as well as knowing when military force may be necessary. What is your sense of Chris Dodd's statements on foreign affairs?

Tony Smith: I have to pass on that -- I admire the man but have not studied his record on this point. Sorry I can't be more explicit.

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Washington: With the exception of a very few Senate Democrats like Feingold who speak their minds and stick to it the Democrats don't stand for anything, so they can't oppose even a war as absurdly pointless as Iraq, nor can they mount a coherent policy toward the serious challenges actually facing America (North Korea, Iran, global warming etc.) Consequently Democrats are easy pickins for the Right Wing, which will win the next election by resorting to their usual tactic of shocking and awing the American people by keeping us confused and afraid -- even if that approach continues to dumb down the electorate and shred our democracy. My question is, will it require a take-over of our "centrist" media to get out a different story to the American people that they are not getting now, so that the Democrats will get the guts to stand up and fight?

Tony Smith: Yes, Feingold is terrific. The Democrats have to bow to special interests from the globalizing corporations to the Israel lobbies and the military industrial complex. We are a "special interest democracy" and it would take a powerful populist upsurge, including protecting jobs and technology from being exported abroad, to turn things around. The special interests won't let this happen -- they are powerful enough, I fear, to prevent any serious attempt.

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New Hampshire: Hi Tony and thanks for your thoughts and your article. Do you think that the PPI and the DLC also believe in the "Unitary Executive" and, if allowed, will continue to erode the balance of power between the three branches of government and the Constitution?

Tony Smith: The PPI/DLC has not addressed this issue but I don't recall them ever criticizing the president for his abuse of office. I could be wrong, but I certainly have spent time on their Web site and with their publications and can't recall any such pronouncements. Their concern is with being "tough internationalists" and it can help to have a powerful executive. Yours is a most serious worry.

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Rockville, Md.:"It isn't easy to offer a true alternative." The author unfortunately has hit on the crux of the problem -- any alternative world order would have to use similar force to stay in power, and wouldn't necessarily be better than American power, though he does have a point that Kosovo and Iraq weren't necessarily the best ways to increase American power. If Mr. Smith is really off of American power, I would suggest Chinese power as probably the most viable alternative. An up-and-coming economic power, China recently has strived to make a splash in the political and diplomatic worlds as well.

Tony Smith: The problem with the Bush Doctrine is that it aimed at world supremacy. Iraq was only the beginning, and indeed "the Broader Middle East" was not its entire appetite. It was global -- economically, politically, and militarily. It is an extraordinary piece of work, this Bush Doctrine -- no other president ever articulated anything like it.

As for the Chinese, it remains to be seen. They certainly must enjoy seeing us fritter our window of greatness away on this hopeless venture!

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Lewisburg, Pa.: Differences of political view most often center on particular measures or actions but are traceable to the premises on which those things are based. This is true, as you indicate, of our controversy on what to do now about our disastrous involvement in Iraq. How may ordinary citizens effectively challenge grossly mistaken premises -- such as those of neoconservatism -- which seem to be shared by many Democratic politicians?

Tony Smith: It is hard for "ordinary citizens" to mount the intellectual arguments necessary. The neocons are an especially articulate group with a Big Picture view that is hyper-patriotic. It's not that I'm so smart, it's that I have the privilege of having time to think these things through. The result is seeing how manipulated we are by the Madison Avenue/Hollywood hype of our leaders. What I bless ordinary citizens for is having the common sense to know nonsense when they hear it!

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Crestwood, N.Y.: Good afternoon. Professor, this disaster is not a hard act to follow. There's probably not one senator of either party who would have cooked the intelligence books simply to foist this foolish war on us. And hasn't the Bush administration, out of desperation, already rejected its own radical policies -- the Cheney-Bolton-neocon "axis of evil" nonsense -- by negotiating with North Korea and Iran, starting to return to a centrist Clinton/Bush Sr. type of foreign policy? In another words, an abandonment of radical Trotskyism in foreign affairs, and a return to normalcy? What future government of either party is going to think it wise to sit back and let the Israelis do whatever they want to do in the occupied territories, as Bush decided to do in 2001? Do the Dems really have to sketch out the particulars of their future intention not to engage in Iran-Contra activities, or agree not to subvert foreign governments, or hold secret wars against Iran? There's only one way to go, and it's back to sanity, experienced non-ideologue diplomats and a Secretary of State who's actually qualified for the job. Your comments?

Tony Smith: What a wonderful idea that we are practicing Trotsky's foreign policy -- for indeed you are right! And you are correct too that the administration may be moving toward saner positions on North Korea and now the negotiations this weekend in Baghdad.

Still, what will happen with Iran? And how can any president reject Israeli settlements when the Israel lobby in this country has demonstrated its power? Nancy Pelosi is speaking today (or was it yesterday) to AIPAC in Washington. I wonder how strongly she criticized Jewish settlements on Arab lands -- not too loudly I venture to say, but if I'm wrong, bravo Nancy!

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Asheville, N.C.: The complicity between Republicans and Democrats has many manifestations, including too-ready deference to executive power, a narrowed interpretation of what (who?) our elected representatives represent and how they're bound, conceding the power to make war to the president, and so on. Interestingly, whether Iraq is just Kennedy's Bay of Pigs gone wrong hasn't been broached, has it? What's more, why haven't some of Bush's more provocative foreign policy maneuvers in the run-up to 9/11 -- such as changing the DOD's war planning to focus on China and its related aftermath, the downing of the American spy plane, etc. -- been raised as though they counted in all the planning done? Even the PNAC's reference to the appropriateness of another Pearl Harbor to justify a more resolute approach doesn't seem to have gelled with anyone, yet another sign of the deafness that reigns supreme.

Tony Smith: An imperialist mind-set was typical of both parties, and now there are elements of both -- Hagel and Baker among the Republicans for example, Obama and maybe Dodd for the Democrats -- who are being more realistic. But another terrorist attack, or attacking Iran, and we will be back to square one I fear. Thanks for your comment.

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One torn liberal: Hi, thanks for taking questions. I confess I initially supported withdrawal from Iraq but now am beginning to believe that total and complete withdrawal might be a mistake. It infuriates me that we even went to Iraq in the first place, but it seems to me now that a precipitous pull-out would do more harm than good. I wish our elected Dems would have an open debate with each other about this, as I feel the hard-left liberals are pressuring some into making policy statements they may not really believe in. Your thoughts?

Tony Smith: I agree with you that just because the decision to invade was a horrendous mistake, that doesn't mean a quick and total withdrawal is the best way to go.

Still, what can we hope to accomplish by staying? The requirements of stabilizing this mess would be so long and costly that the only thing to do now is to plan an orderly withdrawal and hope for the best, in my opinion. But I agree that simply terrible things may happen after we leave.

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Virginia, Minn.: Good morning, sir. I am a Democrat, though not in Congress. But if I were, here is what I would do:

(1) Immediately end all funding for private American contractors and hire Iraqi contractors. I think part of the insurgency is driven by the fact that the Iraqi economy has been hurt substantially by the private American contractors.

(2) End the use of cluster bombs. Again, I think some of the insurgency is driven by the fact that many civilians were killed early in the war by the use of cluster bombs. Some insurgents may be angry relatives. (Personally, though I acknowledge that some insurgents are terrorists, I think they are in the minority.)

(3) Issue a formal apology to the Iraqi people and promise to never again start a preemptive war and to abandon the 1% Doctrine.

(4) Begin a slow withdrawal of troops.

(5) Bring warring factions in Iraq to a negotiating table.

In the long term: Never interfere in a country's internal affairs unless that country's people ask us for help as they did in the former Yugoslavia, though it took a while for us to answer. Sign the Kyoto Protocol and the ICC Treaty. Vow that any Americans who participated in torture be brought before the ICC -- this could help our standing in the world's eyes.

What do you think? You can be brutally honest. I can take it ... thank you.

Tony Smith: I like what you are saying but doubt you'd ever win elective office! The idea of offering a Day of Contrition for the suffering we have needlessly inflicted, and of imprisoning the rip-off contractors we have allowed to make war profits, along with impeachment proceedings instead of promotions (as with Wolfowitz) all appeal to me. But that's why I am a harmless college professor and you probably don't have much throw-weight either! Best to you!

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Crystal City, Va.: Prof. Smith -- long time no hear! Hope all is well at Eaton Hall. Regardless of the Dems entering 2008 without a consistent foreign policy strategy, would you believe that a grand alternative is necessary? Perhaps the best remedy for the Bush-Cheney doctrine isn't a major turnaround in diplomatic and military strategy, but rather an upgrade in logistics and management. Furthermore, if that is the case, would you believe that such an approach would be inevitably unfeasible for the Dems?

Tony Smith: My concern is that your suggestions do not come to grips with a fundamental failure in understanding the place of American power in world affairs. Yes, bad management certainly was part of the current disaster -- and here the buck stops with Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz -- but eventually better management under the same thinking would have met with disaster, perhaps on a larger scale. As for Eaton Hall, the birds are chirping outside hoping, like me, for spring! Best to you.

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Pittsburgh: Your answer to Washington regarding the need for a powerful populist surge to counter the system of "special interest liberalism" makes me wonder what you think might be the catalyst for such a movement. I'm of the opinion that something on the order of the Great Depression would be needed to shake the American people out if the stupor caused by swallowing the pabulum dished out by the infotainment industry that is network and cable news. Your thoughts?

Tony Smith: The growing inequality in America, and the danger of some kind of financial implosion (home mortgages, foreign debt, government spending) combined with this terrible war does indeed suggest that things may have to get a lot worse before they will get a lot better. I hate to come to that conclusion -- I would like to think we simply could reformulate thinking going back to say the year 2000 -- but something tells me the simple won't work and that disaster well may occur. In that case we can only hope for a FDR and not a Hitler...

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Washington: I have read your new book and it is very thoroughly argued. The distillation in the Outlook section this weekend drives home your point that America must acknowledge the limits of its own power and adopt a more modest approach to the world, but is there any reason to believe that a world in which America plays a less assertive role will be any more peaceful or respectful of basic human rights? It seems to me that Europe is punching below its weight when it comes to enforcing human rights standards, and China and Russia are less than helpful (to put it kindly).

Tony Smith: You are right that the world may not be a better place for human rights; on the other hand, we have poisoned the well. Now even honorable groups like Human Rights Watch are going to be looked at with suspicion as agents of American power. HRW is no such thing, of course, but the association is unavoidable I fear.

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Madison, Wis.: Thank you for the article and for taking questions, Mr. Smith. I can appreciate that you represent the strain of liberalism that eschews the use of military power and is suspicious of free markets. However, I note how Europeans have taken the same position and have rendered themselves largely irrelevant to the global conversation of how to expand justice and prosperity throughout the planet. What is the Left's "Plan" for making the world safer, more just and more prosperous?

Tony Smith: Yes, the Europeans largely are irrelevant, I agree -- but better that than what probably will be a million dead, a trillion spent, the U.N., NATO and EU weakened by Washington, all in the name of promoting "market democracy." The first of the Doctors' Oath is "above all, do no harm." Maybe that should become our national motto?

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Silver Spring, Md.: This is kind of a large question, but how can Congress reign in Bush and keep him from funding the war/attacking Iran? If it is true that members of Congress have financial interests in this war, and believe America should be "indispensable," will they ever stop Bush? Why is it that our Congress seems to be so corrupt? Has it always been that way?

Tony Smith: I think campaign finance reform of a serious sort would make a difference. Money never can be taken out of politics, but it can be handled in a way that makes our Congress less subservient to special interests and more responsive to the common good. However, the two parties never will permit the kind of public financing and limits we find in Europe, I am afraid.

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Reisterstown, Md.: You are right that this is a fundamental issue. I think I represent many Democrats and others in wanting a new Democratic administration to reject the Bush position regarding a muscular foreign policy symbolized by the "Bush Doctrine" that allows preemptive war "whenever and wherever we decide" it's necessary. Edwards seems to have hinted at this change. Can we demand an answer from the candidates? It seems a clear choice: for or against. I hope that this becomes a central issue. Do you think it will?

Tony Smith: Well, even if a candidate is again this "muscular" stuff, that doesn't amount to a coherent foreign policy. Sometimes the military will be called for; at other times multilateralism, domestic constraints on environmental damaging, etc. However I think that most candidates will prefer to run against the Bush record rather than lay out an agenda of their own...

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Bethesda, Md.: Look, the problem is that the Democrats have thrown America's interests over the side in order to regain what? Power! Any other analysis is silly and uninformed. All this mugging for the camera is about 2008, and let the country's interest be damned. The terrorists are smart enough to play both ends against the middle, reading the 2006 election results as confirming their strategy. Until more Joe Liebermans stand up, this country would be foolish to trust a junior senator from New York or Illinois with our destiny.

Tony Smith: I agree that the positioning for power will make a sensible policy discussion difficult if not impossible. But I see Lieberman as one of the worst when it comes to actual policy, a war monger who always has been on the wrong side of every question from the corporate to the Middle East. Sorry....

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New Hampshire: Professor, what are your thoughts about Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Pakistan sponsored Taliban? It is Professor Marc Herold's contention that Afghanistan was meant to be "an empty space" and I fear that the same may be true for Iraq. I think that we instigated the civil wars and the mayhem in both countries.

Tony Smith: The Democrats have shown renewed interest in stabilizing Afghanistan but I tend to agree with you that any such policy is unlikely to succeed. That said, a return of the Taliban who sheltered bin Laden is unacceptable as well. I have no solution to this terrible problem and I fear it won't be an "empty space" -- nor will Iraq.

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Sewickley, Pa.: I think the American people may be getting closer than you think to a real debate on this issue of Pax Americana. A lot of folks in the military as well as the "security moms" believe that a draft will be necessary in order to support all war all the time. Whether a draft is instituted or not, don't you think the growing conviction that conscription may eventually gobble up America's youth is changing the viability of candidates who challenge the neocons and neolibs?

Tony Smith: I would like to think that the evident manpower problems are forcing a rethinking; training and equipment are lacking as well. For a country that boasted about how its military power was "beyond challenge," we have had a most humbling experience.

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Washington: Above all do no harm? Never before in the history of the world has any empire used its power to do so much good? Ask our European friends ... who are so drunk off the power we gave them.

Tony Smith: In Europe yes, of course. But in Southeast Asia? In Central America? In the Middle East? Please!

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Pleasant Hill, Calif.: Your question seems to imply that marching in lockstep is desirable for a political party. History is full of tragedies from adherence to the Party Line, as we saw in dictatorships and authoritarian states, and recently in the U.S. Democracy in a messy business, because that's the only way for everyone to be heard and considered. Would you want the Democrats to follow the failures of others?

Tony Smith: Perhaps you misunderstand me. I think they should not follow in lock-step but try to rethink our power and our priorities, in the process moving past the megalomania of the Bush Doctrine.

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Tony Smith: Thank all of you for your thoughtful -- and helpful -- comments. I appreciate the opportunity to be in contact!

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