Bad Reasons to Elect Democrats in 2008

Robert Kagan, whose foreign policy analysis I take seriously, has an interesting but wrongheaded op-ed in yesterday’s WaPo arguing that a Democratic president might be good for the country. While there are reasons why that might be the case, the ones he adduces are quite odd, indeed.

The Democrats need to take ownership of American foreign policy again, for their sake as well as the country’s. Long stretches in opposition sometimes drive parties toward defeatism, utopianism, isolationism or permutations of all three. What starts off as legitimate attacks on the inevitable errors of the party in power can veer off into a wholesale rejection of the opposition party’s own foreign policy principles. Republicans in the 1990s, after supporting an expansive internationalism under Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, drifted toward quasi-isolationism against the Clinton administration’s quasi-internationalism. During Woodrow Wilson’s two terms, the internationalist party of Theodore Roosevelt began transforming itself into the isolationist party of William Borah. During the Nixon-Ford years, the party of John F. Kennedy became the party of George McGovern.

Eight years of Bill Clinton brought the Democrats mostly out of their post-Vietnam trauma and revived liberal interventionism. But the George W. Bush years have driven many back. Buffeted between the administration’s failures and their party’s left-wing critics, the Clintonites either disavowed what they once believed or kept their heads down. Lately they’re starting to show signs of life and could still take the reins again if the right Democrat won in 2008. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing. No one can claim any more that the old Clinton foreign policy team is less competent than the Republicans who succeeded it. But what happens to these Democrats if their standard-bearer loses in 2008?

By this logic, two term presidencies are simply a bad thing. Again, there’s plenty of evidence that presidents are seldom as effective in their second term as their first. But swapping the party in power every election to avoid the opposition party’s getting too nutty is a recipe for paralysis.

Further, the examples Kagan sites are dubious at best. The isolationist Republicans that arose in reaction to Wilson did so, not out of Wilson Derangement Syndrome but because the naive policies of Wilsonian internationalism were bad for the country. Ditto the “no nation building” Republican reaction to Clinton’s erratic interventionism. Indeed, the much-derided neocons stuck by Clinton in all these endeavors and urged him to go much further. It should be noted, too, that there was no comparable reaction from the Republicans after twelve years of Roosevelt-Truman, from the Democrats after eight years of Eisenhower, or the Republicans after eight years of Kennedy-Johnson. Not to mention that the McGovernites arose after only four years of Nixon (he was nominated in 1972, well before Gerald Ford ascended to the VP slot) and arguably were a response to the failed Vietnam policies of their own party and that, while McGovern was quite liberal domestically and an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, he was still a Cold Warrior internationally.

While I believe there’s some truth to Kagan’s premise vis-a-vis modern Democrats and coming to terms with the post-9/11 world, most of what we see now is legitimate opposition to the Iraq War that has morphed into something more virulent as the casualty count mounted and the premises of the invasion have been called into question. The foreign policy platforms of the major Democratic presidential hopefuls are unclear at the moment but the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, is a supporter of the Iraq War and sounds like a hawk.

The case for electing a Democrat is not only to save the party’s soul, though that’s a worthy task, but to pull the country together to face the difficult times ahead. The last time the Democrats were in office, the world seemed a comparatively manageable place. They have not yet had to deal with the post-Sept. 11 world. Since the only post-Sept. 11 foreign policy Americans know is Bush’s, many believe — especially many Democrats — that if only Bush weren’t president, the world would be manageable again. Allies could be easily summoned for the struggle against al-Qaeda or to bring pressure on Iran or to replace American troops in Iraq. Threats could be addressed without force, through skillful diplomacy and soft power. Maybe some of the threats would disappear.

This is fantasy. The next president, whether Democrat or Republican, may work better with allies and may be more clever in negotiating with adversaries. But the realities of the world are what they are, and the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy are what they are. The diffuse threats of the post-Cold War world simply don’t unite and energize our European allies as the Soviet Union did, and even a dedicated “multilateralist” won’t be able to get them to spend more money on defense or stop buying oil from Iran. A smarter negotiating strategy toward Iran might or might not make a difference in stopping its weapons program. Soft power will go only so far in dealing with problems such as North Korea and Sudan.

This argument is more compelling. Parties grow up somewhat when they are in charge. For example, Bill Clinton soon adopted Haiti and China policies almost identical to those of George H.W. Bush that he’d ridiculed during the 1992 race when the cold hard reality of responsibility overwhelmed the talking points. Ditto, George W. Bush and his absolute objection to nation building.

In fact, the options open to any new administration are never as broad as its supporters imagine, which is why, historically, there is more continuity than discontinuity in American foreign policy. If the Democrats did take office in 2009, their approach to the post-Sept. 11 world would be marginally different but not stunningly different from Bush’s. And they would have to sell that not stunningly different set of policies to their own constituents.

This was certainly true during the Cold War. I still recall attending a roundtable discussion at the Carter Center of all the living former Secretaries of State, of which Al Haig had just become the newest member, as an undergraduate. The near-total agreement of men who’d worked for LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan on most issues was stunning.

In this respect 2008 would be another 1952. The Republican Party had been out of power for 20 years when Dwight Eisenhower took office, through Munich, World War II and the first years of the Cold War. Many Republicans imagined that everything that went wrong in the world during those two decades was the fault of Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats. FDR “tricked” us into war with Japan. Then he gave away Eastern Europe at Yalta. Then Harry Truman adopted the disastrous strategy of containment. These were the years when Joe McCarthy, Robert Taft and anti-containment “realists” such as Walter Lippmann flourished. But when Ike and the Republicans finally took over management of the Cold War, years of railing against “cowardly containment” gave way to broad if shaky acceptance.

The country could benefit from a similar passing of the baton in the 2008 presidential election. At the end of the day, of course, a president’s personal qualities and worldview are usually more important than the party she or he represents. The Democrats, like the Republicans, could nominate a candidate no sensible person would entrust with American foreign policy. For that matter, the Republicans could nominate someone capable of winning broad Democratic support, which would partly address the debilitating national divide on foreign policy. But eventually America’s post-Sept. 11 foreign policy will probably be better if both parties have a shot at shaping it.

Of course, the fact that presidents learn the hard way does not necessarily translate into national consensus. The Iraq War, especially coming after a generation of quick military conflicts producing few American casualties, has been particularly divisive, to be sure, but most of our disunity is over domestic issues that go deep into the cultural level. The bitterness that marks the Blue/Red divide is seemingly hard set, only temporarily ameliorated by national traumas like wars and terrorist attacks.

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. Had Al Gore gotten another thousand votes in Florida six years ago and decided, as he may well have, to go to war in Iraq, would he have broad national support? Would most of the Democrats who despise the war now support it because there’s a Democrat in office? Or would a Howard Dean type have emerged in the 2004 primaries to take him on? Further, would most of the Republicans now supporting the war instead be against it because Gore was in charge rather than one of their own?

My guess is that we’d still be a country divided on foreign policy issues and moreso on domestic issues. Yes, some Democrats that now rail against the war would instead be rallying around their president. And some Republicans now begrudgingly supporting the war would revert to their 1990s form and be condemning the post-Saddam part of the operation as useless “nation building” that’s diverting us from hunting down and killing terrorists. The net result, though, would be about the same as it is now.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:

    Why in the world would any sane individual have waged a war on Iraq?

    Al Gore is not crazy, and he is not a liar. So I doubt very much if he would have wasted our nations blood and treasure on the conservatives wet dream of war on Irag.

    He would have had broad national support for bringing Osama to justice however. And by now we would be referring to him as Osama bin dead, instead of Osama bin forgotten.

  2. Al Gore is not crazy, and he is not a liar. So I doubt very much if he would have wasted our nations blood and treasure on the conservatives wet dream of war on Irag.

    I agree. Even if Al Gore was a crazy liar, he clearly opposed the attack on Iraq in an amazingly prescient speech in September of 2002:


    Moreover, if we quickly succeed in a war against the weakened and depleted fourth rate military of Iraq and then quickly abandon that nation as President Bush has abandoned Afghanistan after quickly defeating a fifth rate military there, the resulting chaos could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam. We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.

    We have no evidence, however, that he has shared any of those weapons with terrorist group. However, if Iraq came to resemble Afghanistan – with no central authority but instead local and regional warlords with porous borders and infiltrating members of Al Qaeda than these widely dispersed supplies of weapons of mass destruction might well come into the hands of terrorist groups.

    If we end the war in Iraq, the way we ended the war in Afghanistan, we could easily be worse off than we are today. When Secretary Rumsfield was asked recently about what our responsibility for restabilizing Iraq would be in an aftermath of an invasion, he said, “that’s for the Iraqis to come together and decide.”

    Replace “weapons of mass destruction” and “biological and chemical weapons” with “armaments and explosives” and you have a pretty accurate picture of where we are today. Can you imagine how bad things would be if there were WMDs in Iraq after all? With insurgents and Al Qaeda infiltrators using them the way they are using Saddam’s conventional arsenal against us?