Call me idealistic, but I thought the midterm elections could have been an opportunity for a serious debate about the aims and goals of U.S. foreign policy. Sure, the results matter for who gets to call hearings, fill staff positions, oversee budgets, influence presidential appointments and claim a greater share of the attention of the media and lobbyists; the elections also matter for various politicians eyeing a 2008 presidential bid. They even may prove quite useful for rewriting recent history about the essentially bi-partisan consensus that undergirded Iraq policy-one could say that George W. Bush built on the foundation Bill Clinton laid-even if, in fairness, Democrats might have chosen a somewhat different architecture. And even with regard to Iraq, there is less debate than meets the eye; with the exception of the few calling for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal or the partition of Iraq, most Democratic proposals seem like kinder, gentler versions of what the president is advocating. I am not sure precisely how a phased withdrawal differs from "when Iraqis stand up, we stand down."
What we have is a pseudo-debate on foreign policy. Even by the standards of past U.S. elections-and our campaigns have often been characterized by sloganeering rather than sober analysis (remember the "missile gap"?)-the absence of a serious national conversation is striking.
This is my problem. When Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean says, "The President's freedom agenda has been replaced by the era of incompetence"-he doesn't enlighten me as to whether the freedom agenda itself is flawed as a foreign policy strategy, or whether it is a good and sound approach that has just been poorly executed by Republicans. That's a major difference-with major implications for the direction of U.S. policy-and it is not being discussed. Republicans may deserve to lose, but why should Democrats deserve to win?
It must be odd for the rest of the world to hear lectures about the wonders of American democracy, yet witness such an unedifying spectacle from the world's leading democracy and sole superpower. Impassioned debates on foreign policy marked the 2004 elections in Spain, the 2005 ballot in Germany and the parliamentary campaigns in Italy and Ukraine this year. The two main political parties of the United States, in contrast, want to play a game of partisan "Gotcha!"-exploiting missteps and focusing on trivial disagreements for partisan advantage-rather than lead the nation in thinking through what our posture should be in the world. We don't have a real debate because leaders seem unwilling to level with the American people about costs and priorities, about differentiating between preferences and absolute necessities. It is the rare politician who is willing to give up being "all things to all people" long enough to take a meaningful stand.
Often, the impetus appears to be to find ways to pander to voters by offering no-cost solutions. A lot of noise has been raised about "protecting Israel" in the wake of the Lebanon war or ending the humanitarian catastrophe that is Darfur-but both parties have been quite content to let our European and African partners provide the troops for the missions.
Leading Democrats (and, to be fair, some Republicans) have assailed the Bush Administration for not assembling a more coherent international coalition to pressure Iran; have harshly criticized the Bush Administration for "coddling" Vladimir Putin; have proposed punitive economic measures vis-à-vis Beijing; and undercut the whole argument for Middle East democracy by refusing to meet with the elected Iraqi prime minister for declining to slit his own throat by publicly condemning Hizballah. But all of these criticisms do not a coherent policy make. Senator John Warner's frank comments about Iraq "drifting sideways and the work being done by the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group might lay the foundation for a renewed debate over U.S. policy in Iraq-which would be a start.
But beyond that, our politicians having a serious conversation about the costs and benefits of maintaining American primacy? About how the promotion of democracy advances vital U.S. interests? About how we deal with a resurgent Russia if we can no longer count on its weakened, debilitated condition of the 1990s to ensure reluctant compliance with U.S. directives? About the way China is reshaping the landscape of East Asia and is increasingly playing a more activist role around the globe?
Too often, what we have now is what former National Review board member Neal B. Freeman has described as "rational herding"-an unwillingness to offer dissenting viewpoints or alternative options because one presumes that the "majority opinion" is based on superior information or analysis-combined with a whiff of cowardice among politicians who believe that challenging the consensus view makes one look weak or soft.
Take Kosovo. There is certainly a case to be made for granting the province immediate independence-there is equally a case for proceeding very cautiously on the question of final status. Is the United States prepared to impose Kosovo independence, or bypass the United Nations in the process? Already the Russians have warned that such a precedent applies to all frozen conflicts in the area. If Kosovo is mishandled, not only could it destabilize southeastern Europe, it could have negative ramifications across Eurasia and has the possibility to worsen an already strained U.S.-Russia relationship. The last time the Kosovo question negatively impacted ties between Moscow and Washington, one of the casualties was the proposal for joint action to deal with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan-prior to the 9/11 attacks. Yet there is no real debate on this question-we are told that there is but one solution and that only unreasonable people think otherwise. This puts on the list not only the Russians and Chinese but many of our European allies!
What about the issue identified as the single greatest challenge to the United States-Iran? It is no act of political courage to signal one's support for diplomatic action and to hope that a process can be undertaken with the support of the Europeans, the Russians and Chinese. And there is no cost in declaring, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (d-ny) has done: "We cannot and should not-must not-permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons." It is what follows that needs to be discussed-and has not been. If Iran develops the infrastructure from which it might be able to construct a nuclear bomb-but does not actually assemble a deliverable warhead (in other words, achieves the Indian position of 1974 but not 1998)-what would our response be? If negotiations fail-and a gambler would bet they will-is the correct approach an Eisenhower-style containment approach or a MacArthuresque pre-emptive military strike? What incentives should we be prepared to offer Russia and China in order to gain their full cooperation for meaningful pressure against Tehran? Would we offer Beijing, for example, any sort of compensation for the disruption of energy supplies from Iran in return for their support? Does "must not permit" mean acting unilaterally if much of the rest of the world decides that Iran is no different than Israel, Pakistan or India-a regretful development, but not the apocalypse?
I don't want to convey the impression that there is no debate at all. There is a vigorous conversation in academia and in some journals-including in these pages. Even in government, serious discussion is underway among experts and specialists in the intelligence agencies, within the uniformed military, at the State Department and at the National Security Council. It is only when one comes to the political debate that there is an embarrassing silence. There is a clear disconnect; the conversations among the specialists are not being reflected in the politicians' debates-much to the frustration of the former. This silence then carries over into much of the mainstream U.S. media. It is quite telling when newspapers, say, in Israel or Britain have much more open debate and disagreement about what the U.S. should be doing than in America itself-or that Americans increasingly have to "go offshore" to offer critiques and alternatives, especially if their views are not endorsed by the two major parties.
Writing in these pages last year, two leading members of the Democratic Party's foreign policy brain trust declared, "The two party system does not work properly when one party fails to offer clear and cogent visions for the big issues of the day-or loses the public's trust that it can do so. Only when two serious and confident participants consistently lock swords on critical foreign policy debates will the nation engage in the analysis and in-depth discussion necessary for the development of successful policies. The health of our foreign and national security policy are at stake." Gentle readers, you be the judge as to whether or not this charge has been fulfilled in this election season.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.Essay Types: The Realist