Walter Russell Mead makes the odd assertion that the collapse of the Howard Dean candidacy signals that the Democrats are returning to its roots as a war party. While correctly noting that most of America’s wars happened to start when Democrats were in office, he ignores the fact that the only contender for the Democratic nomination currently backing the war is Joe Lieberman, who has about as much shot getting the nomination as I do.

Mead does make a good point in the piece, though:

Had a Democrat been president on Sept. 11, 2001, a combination of political calculation and personal conviction would have almost certainly pushed the administration toward a vigorous prosecution of the war–just as both the Truman and Carter administrations were caught up in confrontations with the Soviet Union. Many of the Democrats who served the Clinton administration were instinctive hawks. Madeleine Albright is one of the most passionate anti-totalitarians in American life and has always called herself a child of Munich rather than a child of Vietnam. Richard Holbrooke has the talent and the toughness to play the role of a latter-day Dean Acheson.

In any case, a strong Democratic president in the White House, backed by the kinds of public majorities that have backed the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war, would have been able to tame and control the party’s antiwar wing and–whatever the protest on the Kucinich-Nader fringe–put the Democrats solidly in the center of public opinion on the war. This is the strategy towards which both President and Sen. Clinton seem to be heaving the party, but until the Iowa voters spoke Monday night, it was not clear whether this push would succeed. With Iowa voters signaling that opposition to the war is not their main priority, the moderates seem firmly in the saddle.

In fact, the mainstream Democratic candidates are mostly noticeable for the very small differences between their proposals and the foreign policies of the Bush administration. Looked at carefully, it is more style than substance: They would be nicer to the U.N. and to the Europeans than President Bush was, in the hope that this would bring more support for U.S. foreign policy.

But what if, in office, they kiss the frog and it doesn’t turn into a prince? What if Jacques Chirac, for example, continues to oppose American foreign policy even if President Kerry or President Edwards tries to be nicer to him? President Clinton kissed a lot of frogs and didn’t get much help on issues like Iraq. And to some degree, a Democratic president’s hands will be tied. The Senate is unlikely to ratify either the Kyoto Protocol or the treaty establishing an international criminal court no matter who is in the White House next year. If Old Europe and the U.N. refuse to help the U.S. in Iraq in a pragmatic and timely fashion, then the Democrats would be stuck with something that looks a great deal like the Bush foreign policy.

Republicans faced a similar problem in the Truman years. As Truman and Acheson developed the strategy that became known as containment, Richard Nixon described the State Department that put together the Marshall Plan and NATO as “Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of communist containment.” Truman’s policies in Korea–avoiding all-out war with China and settling for a stalemate–were unacceptably weak. We needed something more muscular: unleashing Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan, and rolling back communism in Europe rather than merely containing it. And in the meantime, we needed a much more vigorous prosecution of security risks in the U.S. government.

Once in power, the GOP was step by step forced into accepting most of Truman’s foreign policy. Chiang remained on Taiwan; no U.S. tanks rushed into Hungary in 1956. The Eisenhower administration worked behind the scenes to crush Sen. Joseph McCarthy–and accepted a compromise peace in Korea. Republicans continued to blame Truman and Roosevelt for decisions (at Yalta, for example) that made these policies necessary, but at the level of policy they bowed to the inevitable and carried on with containment.

The war on terror is still very young, and history rarely repeats itself exactly. Still, it is more likely than not that when the Democrats get back in office, they will fight the war on terror in ways that won’t be completely unrecognizable to the Republicans fighting it now.

Indeed. One only has to look at the two most recent presidents to confirm this trend.

In 1992, running against President Bush the Elder, then-Governor Bill Clinton lambasted his opponent for his draconian immigration policy toward Haiti and coddling of the human rights abusers in China, only to wind up following essentially the same policies. In 2000, George W. Bush ran against the Clinton-Gore administration’s foreign policy record, notably the numerous “nation-building” interventions around the world. But we’re currently undertaking a nation building exercise in Iraq far more ambitious than anything Clinton did in the Balkans. Now, certainly, 9/11 and the ensuing war on terrorism has changed things. But I believe there’s more to it than that.

In both cases, I believe the candidates were sincerely expressing their views during the campaign. But being president is different from talking about the presidency. When sitting on the sidelines, it’s easy to say that, while it’s a shame that the people in some far off land are being murdered by thugs, it’s not worth risking American blood and treasure. It’s much harder to be that rational when actually responsible for the resulting consequences. Social scientists talk about this phenomenon as “role theory.” Stephen J. Campbell has an excellent summary of that literature here. (It’s noteworthy, for example, that not only presidents have roles. Also, the same person will take different positions when in different roles.)

Had Al Gore received a couple hundred more votes in Florida (or won Tennessee), I’m not sure that our foreign policy would be radically different. Regardless of his instincts, the pressure to go into Afghanisan after 9/11 was so powerful that he’d have had no choice. It’s debatable whether we’d have gone into Iraq. Clearly, Bush and his advisors had a predisposition for that engagement even before 9/11. But, recall, “regime change” was our announced policy during the Clinton-Gore administration. Given 9/11, the intelligence the president was being fed on Iraqi weapons, Saddam’s non-compliance with his treaty obligations, and the events in North Korea, it’s quite possible a President Gore–as opposed to private citizen Gore–would have made the same decision. It’s much easier to dismiss risks when you’re not the man primarily responsible for defending the nation’s security.

None of this is to say that elections don’t matter and that it’s irrelevant who sits in the Oval Office. Clearly, individual personality, ideology, experience, and the type of people with whom one surrounds himself is important. A President Gore–or a President Kerry or a President Edwards–would have somewhat different priorities and perhaps a substantially different tone. But the differences would be much more significant on the domestic side than they would in foreign policy.

I think, on balance, President Bush is doing as good a job as could be expected in today’s foreign policy environment. Absent some major turn of events, I’ll certainly vote to re-elect him. But none* of the candidates who now appear to have a shot at the Democratic nomination will give up the war against terrorists or, I’d wager, allow our foreign policy to be dictated by France. The role of commander-in-chief is simply too different from that of Senator.

*Or, should I say, neither? Kerry and Edwards may be the only two viable candidates, given that Clark seems determined to keep firing at the same foot.

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Aakash says:

    This entry raises some important points… You are an excellent blogger, and many of your entries are very insightful and principled.

    I actually recently published a lengthy blog entry (it is currently 3rd from the top at my blog) which covers the issue of Joe Lieberman and the pro-war left. The links provided in that entry go to some items that show that liberals and Democrats should be supporting the Iraq war, since it is consistent with the left-wing, Democratic foreign policy agenda. One of the items that I link to is this entry by liberal, pro-war blogger Michael Totten. When I was previously looking at the trackbacks for that entry of Mr. Totten’s, I found this very excellent entry of yours, which reiterates the point that I have been discussing.

    I will likely be updating that entry with some additional items, and your entries on this subject are very good… I might link to them there. I realize that you and I may disagree on the issue of whether this war was the right thing to do, and I realize that you and other war supporters who have cited this information about pro-war leftists probably did not intend for it to be used by a conservative opponent of this war – to make the case that conservatives should not be supporting the war. However, I have been making that case for some time now, and I found this material useful for backing up my viewpoint.

    I realize that conservatives can make the case that the war was justified on conservative grounds as well. (That aforementioned blog entry featured a comment that I had posted at this entry of Dustin’s… In Dustin’s thoughtful response there to my comment, he makes this point.) However, I do not believe that there is a strong conservative case for this war, and that the root justifications for this war have been in the neoliberal and neoconservative political philosophy – and that this war violates the principles of traditional American conservatism and pro-liberty republicanism.

    This type of thought-provoking and civil, principled discussion is insightful and educational… It’s good that we can all discuss and debate these issues like this. The viewpoints that you have expressed have been especially principled, and I agree with a lot of it… I am glad that you do not just regularly toe a party or admninistration line, unlike some other pro-war and pro-Bush bloggers. Thanks, and keep up the great work.

  2. melvin toast says:

    Dean will win. You heard it here first. Those other guys
    are stiffs. The guys got life. I’m a conservative republican/libertarian type. I think his policies are ridiculous. But he’s the dem candidate. You’ll see…

  3. James Joyner says:


    He’s going to have to have a huge comeback in New Hampshire, which certainly looks unlikely. If he comes in 3rd–which is at least possible–he’s done.

  4. melvin toast says:

    Clinton won which states in 1992?

  5. Alan says:

    Hmmm. I think that your (and Mead’s) analysis is fine up to the end of the Vietnam war, but miss two points thereafter…
    1) the Democratic Party of our father’s and grandfather’s time just isn’t made of the same stuff anymore. Even Clinton had to appoint a Republican Senator to be SecDef and Lieberman is looking pretty lonely as the last of the Kennedy/Humphrey/Jackson wing of the party that had some comfort with defense issues. A Rumsfeld wouldn’t have been in charge…
    2) I agree a President Gore would have had to do Afganistan, but what kind of disastrous mess would that have been?
    Picture the Pentagon taking six months to send six divisions, probably not involving the Northern Alliance (soiled human rights record) and giving Osama plenty of time to rile up supporters in Pakistan (180 million people I think, more than Iraq, Iran, Syria Saudi and the Gulf states combined) to join the Great Jihad for the same land where they had defeated the Russians. Our brilliantly light touch took that away from him.

    You can’t topple Saddam if you can’t get out of Afganistan.

    We were so lucky to have this administration at this time in history.