A Real Alternative?

A Real Alternative?

The Democrats are offering a “new direction” and “tough and smart” foreign policy—meaning what, exactly?


Scarcely was the ink dry on my essay that appeared in yesterday's International Herald Tribune ("In foreign policy, don't hold your breath") and I started to receive feedback. (Some of the comments are posted on my blog). Most disagreed with the premise of the article (and which I discuss at greater length in a longer essay that will appear in the forthcoming November/December issue of The National Interest)-that, in this midterm election season, the Democrats have not presented a real alternative for U.S. foreign policy.

Let me dispense with two of the standard responses I have received. The first is to protest that Democrats (and for that matter, some Republicans) have been very critical of the way the Bush Administration has conducted foreign policy. They point to statements assailing the current team for not assembling a more coherent international coalition to pressure Iran; for "coddling" Vladimir Putin and demurring from strongly pressuring Beijing on a whole host of economic and human rights issues, and so on. But all of these criticisms do not a coherent policy alternative make.


The second is simply to parrot the campaign rhetoric of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and others ("President Bush's failed foreign policies aren't getting the job done. America is ready for a new direction that includes policies that are both tough and smart.") Of course, no one seems to think it necessary to actually spell out the details of this "new direction" that is going to be both "tough and smart."

Some pointed out that Democratic politicians have in fact proposed quite detailed alternatives to current policy, and even pointed out that the last issue of The National Interest featured Senator Joe Biden's (D-DE) suggestion "to establish three largely autonomous regions with a strong-but limited-central government in Baghdad" ("Breathing Room," The National Interest, September/October 2006). Others cite as an example the stance on Iraq taken by Congressman Jack Murtha of Pennsylvania.

I concede that some individuals are offering different approaches; the question is whether or not these proposals have any broad base of support beyond the specific individual concerned. Whether the Democrats retake the House or Senate has no impact on whether Biden's proposal is more or less likely to become U.S. policy. Murtha's proposed 2005 joint resolution calling for withdrawal from Iraq did end up with 106 co-sponsors, but enough House Democrats oppose it so that even if control of that chamber shifts, there would be no major change in policy.

Another objection is to raise the point that, had Al Gore been president instead of George W. Bush, the United States would never have gone to war in Iraq in the first place-and citing this as proof that Democrats ipso facto have a different set of policies on foreign policy. First, we can't be absolutely sure of that. All of the leading Democratic presidential contenders for the 2008 nomination from the Senate voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the president to take military action; unless they didn't read the text too carefully, they accepted all the premises (Iraq having an active WMD program, Iraq's links to terrorism, and so on); many of them voted for the initial 1998 resolution endorsing "regime change" in Iraq. But more importantly, that point is irrelevant today. Unless someone is proposing constructing a time machine to go back to 2002, policy has to be based on current 2006 realities. Repudiating a stance you took four years ago doesn't provide guidance for how you plan to deal with the situation today.

One reason that I don't have much confidence in the proposition that a change in the ruling party leads to major reorientations of U.S. foreign policy is that I haven't seen or heard leading Democrats talking about hard choices or setting priorities in a way that might produce different outcomes.

Take North Korea or Iran. Democrats fault the current administration for not doing enough to build an effective multilateral coalition to dissuade Tehran and Pyongyang from pursuing a nuclear program. But many Democrats take the same approach the current Republican administration does-that cooperation on this issue should be unconnected to any other. So Democrats seems to think that gaining Russian support is unrelated to U.S. interest in expanding NATO to encompass Georgia or proposals for greater restrictions on trade between the U.S. and China have no impact on closer Sino-American cooperation in the security sphere.

Or let's look at energy independence. As former national security advisor, Robert McFarlane, has noted, Russia's vast reserves of natural gas would be a key component in any strategy of weaning the United States from dependence on Middle Eastern sources of supply and to give us the two decades of breathing room needed to shift to real energy alternatives. Have Democrats shown a willingness to "hold their noses" and deal with Vladimir Putin's Russia as a "lesser evil" in pursuit of energy independence? Not really.

In the forthcoming issue of the magazine, I rhetorically ask the following questions about Iran:

"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 are-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?"

The Weekly Standard and the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party offer clear answers to these questions and others on foreign policy issues of the day.  Have the Democrats-not speaking as isolated individuals but as a party-done so?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.