Where's the Debate?

January 7, 2004 Topic: Elections Tags: Bush Doctrine

Where's the Debate?

A striking feature - so far - of the emerging presidential race is the lack of substantive debate over foreign policy.

A striking feature - so far - of the emerging presidential race is the lack of substantive debate over foreign policy.  Certainly, candidates issue position papers on specific issues and there is a good amount of criticism directed at the current administration.


But what is missing is the articulation of any sort of coherent, long-term vision for American foreign policy.  As Philip Zelikow concluded in his spring 2003 contribution to The National Interest, "Critics of the Bush Administration's emerging ideas must either accept the new definitions of national security presented or articulate coherent alternatives, working through the implications of present - not past - realities."

Some candidates appear to have accepted the broad parameters of the Bush doctrine, arguing that the problems America faces in foreign policy are executive rather than conceptual - that is, a different team could implement it better (e. g. make it more multilateral, build consensus, etc.)  Others disagree with the premises of the new national security doctrine but have yet to develop an overarching counter-vision.  Vague declarations about "liberal internationalism" seem to have a sentimental rather than an intellectual character.  Is what is desired some sort of Atlantic Confederacy, with countries sharing liberal values grouped together under a single organization (an expanded NATO, perhaps?); is what they support something along the lines of the Network Commonwealth that James Bennett has described in the Winter 2003/04 issue of The National Interest?  No, it doesn't appear to be anything that serious, just blind faith that an "international community" exists and that this community has common standards and a vision for ensuring peace and security in the world.

So, as we head into the 2004 elections, those who would seek to replace George W. Bush as president are either arguing that they could be a "better" Bush, or attribute the changed and dangerous conditions the United States faces in the contemporary world to Bush himself.

This is a pity, for there is always a need for vigorous debate in foreign policy.  And this debate does take place among analysts and academics. 

Consider the case of Libya.  Was Ghadafi's capitulation over WMD a validation of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, as John O'Sullivan has argued?  (Writing in the December 23, 2003 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times, he noted: "the capitulation of Gadhafi is incontestably relevant to the politics of the Iraqi war. For it justifies one of the main arguments for the Iraq war -- namely, the "Bush doctrine" of preemptive intervention against rogue states seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction.")  Or does it prove that effective multilateral action can produce results, given time and incentives, as Ray Takeyh has countered?  (Writing in the December 30, 2003 issue of Newsday, he pointed out: "While many in Washington are quick to attribute Moammar Gadhafi's turnabout to the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the real cause was the debilitating international sanctions imposed on Libya during the past decade. Far from validating the divisive Bush Doctrine, the Libyan case affirms the utility of multilateral sanctions and international cooperation as a means of reorienting recalcitrant regimes.")

There are other critical debates going on: the evolutionary approach to promoting democracy versus "creative destruction" and revolutionary upheaval via regime change; the future of nuclear non-proliferation; the global economic system.

The Democratic Party has a great opportunity to present its vision of the national interest and quantifying the means at America's disposal for realizing it and to present this for debate in the public square.  So far, the politicians don't seem up to the task.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest