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November 10, 2004

Now for some Jacksonian Democracy - a sensible Foreign Policy for the Democrats

Posted by Brendan Simms

After John Kerry's defeat which way will the foreign policy of the Democratic Party turn? Dr Brendan Simms argues that it would be disastrous - for the Democratic Party, the United States, and the wider world - if it McGovernized itself, i.e. adopted a left-leaning apologetic foreign policy. What should the Democrats do? Dr Simms argues that they should: stop turning Iraq into a partisan issue; stop demonising the neo-conservatives; and stop apologising for the United States. Today's Democrats could learn much from Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson.

Dr Brendan Simms will be writing regularly on international relations for the Social Affairs Unit. Dr Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Cambridge Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge and author of the acclaimed indictment of the Major government's Bosnia policy Unfinest Hour.

The re-election of George W. Bush has prompted intense speculation about the next four years. Will his second term see a still more radical foreign policy, with the departure of such multilateral "realists" as Colin Powell as Secretary of State, and the promotion of neo-conservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz. Or will there be a healing gesture, perhaps with the appointment of some senior Democrat to an important position?

A much less-discussed but in the long run equally important question is what is to become of Democratic foreign policy. If press reports are to be believed, Kerry had planned to distribute the top State Department and National Security posts to figures such as the long-serving Senator Joe Biden, Madeleine Albright's former spokesman and sometime Assistant Secretary of State, James Rubin, and the well-known Balkan envoy Richard Holbrooke. They are now condemned to a frustrating four-year wait on the substitute bench, perhaps longer. Nobody knows whether the Republicans will manage to consolidate their electoral dominance, or whether the Democrats themselves will not have undergone a fundamental transformation by 2006. The recent suggestion that Howard Dean, the unsuccessful presidential candidate who electrified the Democratic grass roots with his fiery anti-war speeches, should become the new Democratic Part chairman, seems like a straw in the wind. It raises the prospect that the party will "McGovernize" itself, as it did after Vietnam, by embracing a left-leaning apologetic foreign policy which ends up by regarding the United States as a force for evil rather than good in the world. If the war in Iraq continues to go badly the temptation to do so, to call on America to "come home", will be very strong.

It should be resisted.

Eventually, the worm will turn. Perhaps the evangelical right will over-reach itself; perhaps there will be some second term political scandal. Perhaps the President will be forced, like his father, to raise taxes to cover the ballooning deficit, and will forfeit the support of his base. Perhaps the state of the economy will force out the Republicans, as it did in 1992. When that happens, which may be sooner than one thinks, it is critically important that the surviving dominant strand in Democratic foreign policy should be a robustly interventionist one, which remains committed to the export of democratic values and convinced that the United States is, as Madeleine Albright once put it, the "indispensable nation". How can this be ensured?

Here are a few suggestions:

First, stop turning Iraq into a partisan issue. It is worth remembering that virtually all the Democratic Senators voted in favour of authorising the removal of Saddam Hussein. There was no reason why Bush should have claimed this achievement with all its problems and ambiguities - exclusively as his own, had not the Democrats made it one of the main planks of their campaign. At least one salutary result of Kerry's belated anti-war stance was that nobody can argue that he lost because he did not come out strongly enough against the war. Here it is worth remembering the fate of George McGovern, the World War II air force hero, who passionately opposed the Vietnam War and was routed by Nixon in 1972. To be sure, Kerry's attack on the war galvanised some of the Democratic base, but it probably gained him substantial votes only in West and East coast states where he did not need them, such as New York and California. It is certain, on the other hand, that his confused stance on Iraq suggested a general weakness on the "War on Terror" and was an electoral liability among many Democratic leaning voters who finally plumped for Bush. Kerry's stated intention to stay on in Iraq for four years, to pursue a war which he had already condemned as "the wrong war, at the wrong time, in the wrong place", was intellectually incoherent.

Secondly, stop "othering" the neo-conservatives. Democrat columnists, leftish writers, internet bloggers, "realist" conservatives, isolationists and many others have recently constructed an extraordinary phantasm of a sinister and ultimately un-American "neo-conservative" conspiracy at the heart of the Bush administration. In fact, opinion polls show that neo-conservative beliefs in the imperative to spread democracy in the Middle East, to protect Israel, and maintain US power command widespread support in the American heartland, and not just among evangelical Christians. Many of the mistakes in aftermath of the Iraq War should be laid at the door of the assertive unilateralists such as the Vice-President Cheney and Rumsfeld, not the neo-conservatives who pressed for an Iraqi-centred political process from the very beginning. Moreover, many of the older neo-conservatives are former Democrats, alienated by the party's shift to the left in the 1970s. They shared the demands of Democrat liberal interventionists such as Biden and Rubin in the 1990s for action in Bosnia and Kosovo, when "realist" Republicans, and Democrats, were sceptical. The neo-conservatives are therefore not Amalekites, to be smitten hand and hip. They represent a progressive strain in American history which should be wooed back into the fold. In short, the Democrats must learn to love the neo-conservatives.

Thirdly, stop apologising. John Kerry frequently referred to the need "to make America respected in the world again". By this he did not mean, and was not taken to mean, the assertion of American power. Rather, Kerry was suggesting that America has somehow put itself beyond the pale through its unilateral action in Iraq. Of course, in individuals, public doubts and diffidence can be a sign of maturity. There was certainly nothing wrong with deploring the shame of Abu Ghraib, or feeling uneasy at the gusto with which some Republican hawks bypassed the United Nations. But in situations of extreme emergency, an uncertain trumpet is liable to misunderstood, by friend and foe. It can also be, as we have seen, electorally disastrous. Moreover, the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was itself necessary and overdue, though one could argue about timing and method. The Democrats would have been, and are, better advised to stick to their original support for the war, while criticising intelligence collection and the handling of the aftermath. Besides, there will be times when Democrats, even liberal ones, will want to leave international institutions to one side in order to do what is right. Kosovo in 1999 was one; Darfur might be another in future.

Instead, the Democrats could do worse than embrace a long-neglected current within their party: that of Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the long-serving Senator for Washington state. Jackson was a New Dealer, a passionate trade unionist, a civil rights enthusiast and supporter of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society". He was also a critic of the sixties "counter-culture", a friend of Israel, particularly its Labour party, a supporter of the Vietnam War, and a ferocious critic of Detente with the Soviet Union, which he condemned as selling out eastern European dissidents. Many of his national security assistants, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, believing the Democratic Party to be "soft on defence" later on became prominent neo-conservatives and served in the Reagan administrations of the 1980s. It is the Jacksonian tradition of cultural centrism, compassionate economics, a strong defence, and the aggressive promotion of human rights that the Democrats will have to rediscover.

By the way, "Scoop" Jackson was a pioneering environmentalist and a scourge of the corporations, especially the oil companies, a man whom Ralph Nader once described as the "most effective man in the Senate". He is a man who would have appealed to "tree-huggers" and "security moms" alike. All these things can be combined.

Dr Brendan Simms is Newton-Sheehy teaching fellow in international relations at the Centre of International Studies and fellow in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.


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