Wanted: Foreign Policy Alternative

Forward:  The following post contains criticism of the administration's foreign policy, including the war in Iraq.  However, I am not one who wishes to see Iraq fail, just to make me feel better about my criticisms.  In this critical week for Iraq, I wish the people of that country all the best with their fledgling democracy and I am thrilled that their elections seem to be going well.  Writing from here in the US where millions of people don't bother to vote if it's raining, the people of Iraq who are risking their lives to vote have my deep respect.


From time to time, like many libertarians, I tend to isolationism -- but as tempting as isolationism may be, that approach is just not supported by history.  As the richest, strongest nation in the world, we run and hide from the rest of the world. In fact, I think the world is well and truly screwed if the US does not actively involve itself in making the world a better place. Since the cold war ended, the US has the luxury of intervening in world affairs and conflicts solely based on its values, such as promotion of democracy or end to genocide, rather than merely to check Soviet power. No longer do we need to support jerks like the Shah of Iran because we feel we must have allies in a particular area. GWB has outlined a fairly clear foreign policy for using American power to unseat dictators using whatever force is necessary. It is fair for us to oppose this policy for being too impatient, too violent, too expensive, too dependent on the military -- but shame on us for ceding the moral high ground of promoting democracy and opposing totalitarianism, as Democrats and many libertarians have. You can't oppose spreading democracy (or set a low priority to it, as Kerry explicitly said he would) and win with the American people. Heck, this is the Democrats' issue "“ how can they give it up to Republicans? When did pragmatic amorality rather than idealism become the hallmark of Democratic foreign policy? Where is the party of Kennedy and Truman and Roosevelt? Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for not clearly outlining a foreign policy alternative to GWB's for using the US's strength to do good in the world.

Some History

I am by no means an expert on foreign policy, so I guess it might be useful for me to define what I mean by "having a foreign policy", since my definition may differ from the "experts".  I consider a foreign policy to be a framework for taking action vis a vis other countries and for creating responses to the actions of these other countries.  An example helps, I think.  From about 1945 to 1989, the foreign policy of this country boiled down to "contain communism and thwart its spread".  This evolved some over the years - for example, Reagan's foreign policy probably more rightly could be described as "destroy communism altogether". 

Nevertheless, this simple framework determined most of our foreign policy decisions.   Why ally, for example, with Pakistan?  We have virtually nothing in common, their civil rights records suck, but they were strategically positioned next to the soft underbelly of Russia, and a hedge against socialist, sometimes Russian-leaning India.  Ditto for the Shah of Iran - his human rights records sucked too, but again he was anti-communist and created a difficult strategic problem for Russia.  El Salvador and Nicaragua?  For years both countries had civil wars between one side that were brutal totalitarians and the other side who were... brutal totalitarians.  Why get involved at all?  Because one side was anti-communist, and the other side pro-communist. 

By the end of the 80's, the Republicans' idealism was focused narrowly on eliminating the evil empire, and they pragmatically tolerated other human rights problems elsewhere to reach that goal.  From time to time, the Democratic Party provided a useful opposition voice urging more focus, for example in the case of Iran, on human rights and democracy and less raw we-will-accept-any-type-of-abusive-government-as-long-as-they-are-anti-communist pragmatism.

Anyway, in 1989 the Berlin Wall, and soon the Soviet Union, fell.  And with that fall, the US foreign policy of over 40 years became obsolete.   For the next 12 years, the US really had no defining foreign policy, no overarching goal or credo.  Through these years, without the strong magnetic pull of the Soviet Union, our attention became attracted by conflicts and injustices in many smaller, previously overlooked parts of the world.  Haiti, Kosovo, Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Chechnya all attracted our attention.  However, without a clear framework in place, our response varied, from none to half-hearted to strong.

GWB was really the most unlikely of people to change this state of affairs.  GWB ran against Gore (as Clinton did, in fact, against GWB's dad) on a platform of thinly disguised isolationism.  Rush Limbaugh spoke for many conservatives in 2000 by disparaging the use of the US military in places like Kosovo, calling them a series of "pizza-delivery" operations.

All this changed, of course, on 9/11.  GWB, with philosophical backing of the neocons, went out and not only shaped a coherent (meaning consistently articulated) US foreign policy, but grabbed the moral high ground that the Democratic Party should have been expected, at least historically, to have staked out for itself.  Here was the Republican party saying that its foreign policy would be energized by promoting democracy and human rights.  And, simultaneously, we saw a Democratic candidate criticizing the Republican for being too idealistic and arguing for a return to raw pragmatism in foreign policy. 

No Discernable Democratic Foreign Policy Exists

In the last election, as I wieghed my choices between two flawed candidates, many of my friends asked me "how can you even think about voting for Bush given his foreign policy?"  My answer to this was, first, that my vote for Bush would be based on tax and regulatory policy, not social or foreign policy.  Second, though, I would point out that on foreign policy, Bush was essentially running unopposed.  Bush has crafted a foreign policy which boils down to:

"Aggressively promote democracy around the world with methods up to and including the use of the US military; acknowledge that security at home sometimes requires aggressive, unilateral actions to snuff out threats overseas".

Can anyone tell me in one sentence what the Democratic Party's foreign policy is?  I can come up with two different summaries, each of which is lame:

  1. "Don't Do What George Bush is is Doing".  Uh, OK, thats fine as far as it goes, but its a tad unhelpful if you actually take office and GWB is gone.  Now what do you do?
  2. "Be Respected - Get Other Countries to Like Us Again".  I guess all things being equal, being liked is fine, but imagine this situation:  You see two moms sending their kids off to the first day of school.  The first mom says to her child "be good, and if you have a chance, try to help the other kids to be good as well".  The second mom tells her child "Do whatever it takes to be liked".  Which advice do you find more compelling?  You may disagree with the first mom as to the values she has taught her child, and you may disagree that the child should try to spread those values to others, but it sure stands up better than "be liked".

The Democratic Party in general find themselves in a position of defending current institutions (e.g. public schools, affirmative action, social security, the tort system, the UN) against any change, even when the average person is well aware that those institutions are in need of change.  However, in foreign policy, the Democratic Party finds itself defending NOTHING.  The recent Condi Rice confirmation hearings reveal the party as purely in opposition, totally without an offered alternative. 

But the story gets worse for the Democrats.  Because Kerry's foreign policy message was both vacillating and indistinct, the Democrats allowed their most radical opposition voices by default to define the Democrats foreign policy message.  Politics abhors a vacuum, and into that vacuum rushed Michael Moore and the radical left.  Moore, for example, went well beyond a rational opposition to the war in Iraq to actually supporting Saddam Hussein and the Baathists.  He portrayed Saddam as a reasonable man, pre-war Iraq as a kite-flying paradise, and Baathist terrorists as minute-man-like freedom fighters.  He and others in the far left painted all of the world's problems as America's fault.  Without an alternative official Democratic position that anyone could understand, and by feting Moore at their convention, the Democratic Party in effect became associated with hating America and supporting a genocidal totalitarian butcher. 

Bad move. 

What the Democrats missed in the election is that while many Americans were frustrated with the course of events in Iraq, they liked having a foreign policy energized by idealism and the promotion of democracy.  They liked the notion of using our unique wealth and power in the world not for zero-sum squabbling with another super-power but for making the world a better place.  And most Americans, surprise it may be over at the Democratic Underground, like America.

To this day, few prominent Democrats have given anything but lukewarm support to the Iraqi people and the current elections -- Kerry goes over there, and spends his time trying to convince the Iraqis everything is screwed up rather than trying to give them the courage and stamina needed to make democracy work.  Democratic bloggers have spent most of today denying ignoring the elections in Iraq, or lamenting that so many millions of Iraqis could be turned into American puppets.

Going Forward

What a mess!  How did the party get so far away from its ideals, that its position is best described as supporting totalitarianism and hoping free elections fail? 

The American political process depends on a viable opposition.  Someone in the Democratic Party needs to reinvent their foreign policy.  Why can't they get out in front of Republicans?  Why can't they say something like:

We are thrilled by the elections in Iraq.  However, the administrations single-minded reliance on massive military intervention to build democracies is bottlenecking our progress-- we only can take on one country at a time when each intervention requires $300 billion and the majority of available military forces.  America should be pushing forward on multiple fronts, in Saudi Ariabia (which Republicans have ignored), in North Korea, in Cuba.  Millions have died in the Sudan but we have been unable to stop it, because all of our military is tied up in Iraq.  We advocate a new approach to move the world to democracy faster, including....

You get the idea --  I am not going to do their work for them.  Note that crafting a credible foreign policy alternative will require Democrats to deal with some of their historic ideological baggage:

  • Acceptance that the use of the military is sometimes justified.  This will be a problem for many in the left, but peace is not an end in itself.  Peace is more important than anything else only if you are willing to live with ... anything else.
  • Develop confidence in capitalism and trade as tools for promoting freedom and democracy.  Most of the progress of the last 20 years in places like Eastern Europe and China have been through private interaction rather than any public initiatives.  Many on the left will have a HUGE problem with this, but Bill Clinton understood it, so there is hope in the party.
  • Willingness to accept that the UN is deeply troubled and be ready to radically restructure it.  Work to recreate the UN as primarily a human rights and democracy proponent, rather than a massive beauracracy to do... whatever it is they do.
  • Recognize that to make progress in the world, everyone will not always like us.  A good president minimizes problems with allies, but doesn't put being liked above doing the right thing
  • Shut Jimmy Carter up.  No President in the last 50 years has done more damage to US foreign policy, and, but the way, has there ever been a dictator that Carter didn't want to cozy up with?

UPDATE:  some similar thoughts from, of all places, Democratic Underground.  Also more here via Instapundit.

UPDATE#2:  Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post (via VodkaPundit) gets the idea - stop bashing Bush efforts to promote democracy adn instead get out in front, pushing the administration to do more.


  1. Tim Stanley:

    Hi Warren, I like your observations about Iraq. I now wonder how they will manage their country once we leave. I took my second masters in management at the university's public administration dept., so I am always interested in the process of providing basic services to people. It will be interesting to see Iraq evolve over time. I pray that they will be able to manage their society in a productive way. They have the following to manage: business community, policing, sewer, water, electricity, roads, education, health care, and housing. Gosh, this is a big job indeed. Take care.

  2. dearieme:

    Kennedy, Truman, Roosevelt? But (F.D.)Roosevelt's policy on WWII was surely just to keep out of it? Until the Japanese attack, and Hitler's declaring war on the U.S., made it impossible, he did so.

    Kennedy: the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam war are hardly adverts for an activist foreign policy?

    As is so often the case when judicious people wish to praise a Democratic President, all you're left with is Truman.

  3. Scott Peterson:

    I have a lot of respect for President Carter, but I think he is embarrassing himself by so shamelessly mugging for the Nobel Peace Prize. I thnk he is doing this because he recognizes that his presidency was a failure in many was and thus wants to polish up his position in the history books with the Nobel.