There is something in the American character that seems to gravitate toward three-word foreign policy slogans. We’ve always liked bumper-sticker foreign policies, even before there were bumpers to stick them on: Think of “no entangling alliances”, “empire of liberty” and “the Open Door.” Then came “containment of communism”, “enlargement and engagement”, and now the “war on terror.”
Shorthand has its uses, of course. Slogans embrace a volume of meaning, but meaning that can often only be shared and understood by the cognoscenti, the priesthood of believers, the initiated. If, as many increasingly believe, the “war on terror” is too small a definition of America’s role in the world, the Democratic Party is challenged to broadly define a new approach to a complex, revolutionary world.
It may come down to just three words in the end, but that is not how answering this challenge can begin. Specifically, constructing a 21st-century Democratic Party foreign policy involves four steps: stipulation of the limited but legitimate conditions under which the United States is required to demonstrate its military power; recognition of revolutionary new realities; formulation of a new round of international institution-building required to address these realities; and organization of a domestic internationalist coalition in support of this round of institution-building. This is what the 21st-century Democratic Party must do to define a new internationalism and recapture its mantle as America’s genuine internationalist Party.
We are now almost two decades beyond a Cold War that, fairly or unfairly, gave us meaning and clear policy purpose for almost half a century. We now feel the loss of that clarity. No “new world order” emerged after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved, and no compelling new template took shape before September 11, 2001. Since then, over the past seven years, Republican unilateralism and preemption have proved unsuccessful at isolating, let alone eliminating, virulent jihadism. Neither Party, it must be said, has a convincing corner on foreign policy truth these days. But as the age of Reagan fades in memory, a particular burden rests on the Party of Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson to provide America with a blueprint to lead it through a globalizing world that is eroding nation-state sovereignty and changing the nature of conflict.
One reason for this is plainly political. It is a central truth of American politics that conservative Republicans have been effective at describing the world as a dangerous place, a place where force of arms and the willingness to employ force as a first resort is sometimes required, and where only those sharing this view are equipped to protect the United States and its often fuzzily defined “interests.” But Republicans have squandered their advantages by failing. When neoconservative Republicans after 9/11 made the willingness to use force the key to liberating dictator-afflicted nations and bringing the light of democracy and market economics to their long-suffering peoples, they overreached badly. Moreover, though cast in universal terms, this idealist doctrine was selectively applied—in Iraq, for example, but not in Zimbabwe. Here the realist definition of “interests”, meant especially to include oil, determined who deserved deliverance by American military forces and who did not. This undermined both the credibility and the appeal of the neoconservative project.
Nevertheless, the failure of conservative idealism does not translate automatically into an advantage for the Democratic Party. That Party, which was considered by many conservatives as too bellicose for the first three-quarters of the 20th century, must now construct practical guidelines for the circumstances under which military force should be used in furtherance of American policy—in other words, when the Clausewitzean continuation of policy “by other means” is warranted. This task also implies a need to state when force is liable to be least effective. This is the first step in defining a comprehensive foreign policy, one made necessary by the political reality of three decades of the “swift boating” of post-Vietnam Democrats.
This is not to say that a 21st-century Democratic foreign policy philosophy can end with declarations on the uses of bellicosity and coercion. It is only to suggest that attention to the arena of overlap between security policy and foreign policy is crucial for achieving the necessary level of credibility to govern this democracy. This overlap cannot be sensibly managed, however, without coming to terms with new international realities, which include not only the dangers of jihadism, fundamentalism and in some cases resurgent tribalism, but also threats posed by global warming, pandemics, mass migrations, failed and failing states, the instability of poorly regulated global markets, and the uncertain consequences of rising regional powers.
Clearly, any new Democratic foreign policy must include a plan to deal with the following challenges: managing the constructive emergence (or re-emergence) of regional powers such as China, India and Russia; managing the forces of globalization for the maximum benefit to the maximum number; severely constraining the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons; dramatically reducing the threat of global warming; networking public health services to prevent, and if necessary respond to, pandemics; isolating and crushing jihadist terrorism; and other challenges currently receiving short shrift thanks to a preoccupation with an ill-defined “war on terror.”
It will soon become clear to anyone trying to fashion instruments to handle such challenges that we need a new era of constructive internationalism that mirrors that of the era between the end of World War II and the advent of the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1948. Democratic foreign policy framers must be clear that the global community suffers from an acute institutional deficit. We are seeking to govern the world of the 21st century with institutions sixty years old or even older—the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, NATO and others. In many cases these institutions were consciously constrained at birth by the United States out of concern for the protection of national sovereignty.
Democrats should therefore seek out and promote this generation’s Trumans, Marshalls, Kennans, Harrimans, McCloys and Achesons—large-bore figures who understand both power and responsibility, who comprehend these new realities, and who possess the imagination to fashion collaborative instruments to deal with them. This mandate is usually subsumed under the catch-all term “leadership”, but we need to fill in that word with its more specific qualities. Leadership means those rare individuals who can see over the horizon, have the imagination to anticipate threats and challenges before they tumble into our laps, are creative enough to propose new institutional solutions, and have sufficient public credibility to convince their fellow citizens to try new approaches.
Some will assert that no significant realignment of U.S. foreign policy priorities can be achieved without the construction of a new domestic coalition. However, such a coalition arguably already exists but simply has not yet discovered a clear definition of America’s role in the world with which to identify. This coalition would comprise massive numbers of large and small corporations engaged in international commerce; a new generation of international travelers familiar with the realities of a shrinking world; those who share the conviction that the way forward cannot be successfully navigated at the point of a bayonet; those who are convinced that our environment is global and not local; those who maintain familiarity with international developments; and the majority of Americans who see the global community as an arena of promise rather than fear.
Coalitions for both a Democratic victory and for effective governance exist. The Party’s challenge is to deserve the opportunity for victory and governance by persuading the American people that it understands the uses and limits of force in a 21st-century world, that it grasps the revolutionary changes taking place in that world, and that it is prepared to exercise creative leadership in a new multilateral statecraft. As always, the American people will decide.
Lee H. Hamilton:
A dangerous array of new and profound challenges for the United States lurks around every corner and will greet our next president in the Oval Office. He will face a daunting amount of unfinished business that requires immediate attention. Indeed, the challenges that will face the next president are as great as any incoming president ever has faced.
As this Democrat sees it, to move forward and lead effectively the next president should set a new tone and agenda. He should leave behind the premises of the Bush Administration’s policies in an attempt to reverse the decline in America’s strength and reputation they have wrought. An oversimplified division of the world between friends and enemies should give way to a more nuanced approach to foreign policy that treats the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Preventive war, and by extension regime change, should no longer have a heralded central place in American strategic doctrine, although no American president will rule it out. The next president should also avoid conflating global leadership with unilateralism. Leadership entails rallying the international community to solve problems, not single-handedly creating them.
Incompetence must no longer be a defining characteristic of American foreign policy. Many nations of the world doubt our competence as much as our policies. These nations, watching our struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention our inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, have doubts about our capacity to act effectively. Whether U.S. foreign policy failures have resulted from ever-shifting goal posts, soaring rhetoric divorced from capabilities, attention deficit disorder toward some regions of the world or plain neglect, to restore the world’s (and our own) confidence in America, we must pragmatically set and skillfully realize our policy goals.
America’s point of departure on January 20, 2009 should be recognition of the world’s central realities and their context: a fluid and dynamic global environment defined by four key elements.
First, the United States is the world’s military, economic, technological and cultural leader. Although our ability to effect change around the globe is unparalleled, it is nevertheless limited. In 2008, we find ourselves overstretched, immersed in costly and frustrating counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, struggling to maintain respect in much of the world, and facing escalating budget and trade deficits.
But America, though currently diminished, has not entered a state of permanent decline. Far from it. Despite misgivings about some of the uses of American power, the world still looks to the United States as a leader in most fields, chiefly in the achievement of peace and prosperity. The world wants and in many areas needs American leadership, but not a leadership that invades countries unilaterally, bullies allies, stumbles in its nation-building efforts, disdains international law or rejects international treaties.
American power is not new, but the scale of the backlash against its application in the last eight years is. Whereas we view ourselves as the solution to many global problems, much of the world views us as the problem. The United States can bounce back and regain lost ground if our next president accepts the world for what it is, treating friends with respect, seeking their cooperation in pursuit of shared objectives, and handling adversaries with skill in pursuit of the national interest.
Second, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world order has proven more fluid than it has been for decades, perhaps centuries. The relative stability of the bipolar Cold War era is a thing of the past. Emerging powers are increasingly assertive on the international stage, relying on the opportunities provided by globalization to expand their spheres of influence. America will not decline in absolute terms, but other powers will rise. These changes are transforming the landscape of international relations, shifting it from the Atlantic to the Pacific and toward more numerous centers of global power.
Third, globalization is the trend on the world scene. Growing demand for energy in emerging markets helps drive the price of oil to unprecedented heights. A change in the financial markets of East Asia roils the global marketplace. Jobs and investment move more readily and quickly from country to country than ever before. But as globalization has developed, U.S. support for further economic integration has eroded. Americans no longer accept that they have more to gain from trade than they have to lose. The new president should nevertheless make a strong case for the continued advancement of free trade. Overall, it redounds to our benefit, but its adverse consequences for some must be offset with more transition funds, re-training programs and a wider social safety net for those in faltering industries.
Globalization is about more than just economics, however. Events in even the isolated Pakistan-Afghanistan border region can endanger the United States. State-owned enterprises and sovereign wealth funds blur the line between international economics and politics. Our dependence on oil, unlikely to decrease significantly in the years ahead despite that objective’s increasing importance, renders us susceptible to instability in the Middle East.
With interconnectedness comes interdependence. While this lowers the risk of great power conflicts like World War II, it increases the risk of other threats: economic volatility, epidemic disease, environmental and population crises, and asymmetric warfare. A world changing at remarkable speed is facing growing pains, with terrorism and nuclear proliferation being the most alarming symptoms.
Fourth, therefore, increasing turmoil on all continents is becoming a fixture of international relations. That is partly because the benefits of globalization have not been fully global. There have been winners and losers both within and among countries. So dealing with globalization is not just a management problem; it is also a political one.
Ours is a world of increased energy demands and decreasing resources, especially with regards to oil and water. Poverty and hunger have the potential to turn whole regions into war zones as population growth and environmental degradation pose unprecedented challenges to humanity. This year we have witnessed food riots in Cairo, Tibetan unrest in China, a crackdown on civil society in Zimbabwe, horrific violence in Darfur, a surge of suicide bombings in Pakistan, a devastating cyclone in Burma and a massive earthquake in Sichuan. Such events are no doubt different in countless ways, but they all have the potential to destabilize not just countries but entire regions in an interconnected world. They exemplify the chaotic conditions that threaten stability and peace.
Confronting this tumultuous environment, the next president should develop a strategic vision for the world and articulate a framework for achieving it. That framework needs six interlocking parts.
First, many of our policies have angered leaders and peoples around the world. The next president must help the country regain its moral clarity and restore global respect for the United States. Closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay and denouncing torture in all its forms are essential first steps toward this goal.
Second, despite our unmatched power, America will need help. The most challenging issues—climate change, AIDS, drugs, terrorism, nuclear proliferation—are transnational problems that demand multilateral solutions. We cannot solve them by ourselves. In the past, an element of American foreign policy fundamental to its success has been the fact that other nations benefited from our leadership even as we pursued our own national interest. Today, many nations, including our allies, feel that our self-interested policies have hurt them.
Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, Acheson: That postwar generation did more than advance America’s interests in an age of emerging threats. It helped build a world of alliances and institutions that reflected shared values and enabled us to lead other nations in joint efforts to promote and achieve our aspirations for mankind. Those institutions and others—the UN, WTO, NATO, IMF and World Bank—need a new surge of American support to bolster their efforts and can assist the president in cultivating an international system that has cooperation and engagement, not confrontation, at its core.
Third, the next president’s foreign policy should incorporate and promote U.S. values. We should emphasize compassion for the universal yearning for human dignity. We should listen to the people of the world, while developing effective public health, food and trade policies, ever aware of how we implement them and how others interpret them. But we should neither insist on the American model nor try to impose democracy, particularly not at the barrel of a gun.
In promoting our values, we should be candid with other nations. We cannot and should not try to solve all their problems. We are at our best when we inspire emulation, not resentment. We must get much better at using public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs and all the other tools of communication to enhance the appeal of the United States. But above all, to spread our values and shape the battle of ideas, we have to set an example for the world and regain our status as a role model. We must be the free, democratic, decent, humane and prosperous society we have always aspired to be.
Fourth, the United States should re-invest in its non-military foreign policy instruments. This includes a robust diplomacy, which should build relationships, solve regional disputes, listen carefully to all, and convey the feeling that the United States wants to be part of the solution to the world’s problems.
I understand the desire of the American people to support and finance the finest military force in the world. Today, the U.S. military is stretched thin, struggling to replace equipment and retain personnel. Ensuring America’s military pre-eminence will be arduous and expensive, but it is necessary. We certainly have enemies who are actively seeking to kill Americans, and there may be rare occasions when we must be prepared to strike them before they strike us. Diplomacy does not always work. Nevertheless, I do not understand why the American people are not also willing to equip, train and sustain the most skilled diplomats in the world. Diplomacy, intelligence, economic development and targeted foreign aid are too often neglected, underfunded or underutilized tools. These tools are crucial in achieving peaceful solutions to international challenges. We can better achieve our foreign policy objectives when we employ and integrate all the tools of American power—economic, political, military, intelligence, and diplomatic.
Among other things, this means pragmatically engaging and reforming the UN and other international institutions. These institutions have serious flaws, but they are still vital tools for global engagement. We must also realize that talking to adversarial states is not always a concession. Responsibly engaging in dialogue without preconditions, but with careful preparation, can often be beneficial.
Fifth, the president’s foreign policy should be built on a strong domestic foundation that respects the views of the American people. What happens in the United States, both economically and politically, will be as important to the success of our foreign policy as what happens in the world. As to the former, recent signals indicate some erosion of America’s economic position: budget deficits spiraling upwards, trade deficits exceeding $700 billion a year, a currency that has been falling in value and a subsequent, though subtle, shift of confidence in the role of the dollar. Only policy initiatives that incentivize sound economic behavior will reverse these trends. Not even America can deny the laws of economics.
Whether a Republican or a Democrat occupies the White House in 2009, the president should be mindful of how the domestic political situation conditions American foreign policy. More than 80 percent of Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction, according to recent polls at the time of this writing. A proportion that high cries out for a leadership that seeks a unity of purpose. The conduct of American foreign policy is very difficult without the support of the American people, probably impossible in the long run.
To try to build that support, the president and Congress should work together on a host of crucial issues. In order for the U.S. foreign policymaking process to work, the Legislative Branch must be both partner and critic of the president. It must hold the Executive Branch accountable, something it often has failed to do in recent years. That means, among other things, more robust congressional oversight. It also means that the president must genuinely be willing to consult regularly, not merely notify episodically, the congressional leadership of both parties on questions of war and peace, trade and other issues. Our system works best when both the president and Congress are strong.
And sixth, the president must make the toughest of all decisions in government: setting priorities. We cannot solve every problem on the international agenda. Our ability to bring about change is limited, as are our resources. He must choose and stick to his choices.
There are, of course, positive trends that the next president should build upon. There are no great-power conflicts on the horizon. In South America, eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere, democracy is the rule, not the exception. Dictatorship and authoritarianism have not disappeared, but the historical trend is clear. The global economy has entered its fifth straight year of more than 4 percent annual growth, extreme poverty has diminished, the number of wars has declined, and the number of conflicts resolved is up. All this progress is fragile, but overall it is encouraging.
The next president’s vision should serve a multiplicity of U.S. values and interests—economic, political, strategic and security. The Oval Office comes equipped with an awesome number of tools to advance those interests and values. We have solid reasons for confidence. We are blessed with a durable Constitution, enormous resources, an energetic and capable people, the world’s most productive economy, and a free and open society. Collectively, those assets form the engine that has powered America, and they will do so once again.
Presidential elections provide useful opportunities to reassess the health of the nation and—provided a majority of citizens agree—to change America’s leadership if the balance sheet does not look good. This was essentially Ronald Reagan’s point in 1980 when he posed the simple, elegant question: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” When Americans answered “no”, they chose him to take over for Jimmy Carter and to initiate a different approach. As President Bush winds up his second term, a similar exercise seems appropriate, certainly so when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Eight years after Bush was elected—and seven years after he launched what both supporters and critics agree to have been a “revolution” in foreign policy—is America better off? Is the United States safer, stronger and more self-confident?
I believe it is impossible to answer that question in the affirmative, an assessment I think most Americans, and certainly most Democrats, share. As the Bush presidency comes to an end, the world is more dangerous, America’s enemies are stronger and more numerous, and our international standing is vastly diminished. In Iraq, despite significant recent improvements in security, 150,000 U.S. soldiers continue to fight and die in a war already in its fifth year, at the cost of $300 million per day. Iran is far stronger today than it was eight years ago; it funds and arms terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and is moving rapidly toward a nuclear weapons capability. Democracy, the promotion of which has been a centerpiece of the Administration’s foreign policy, has stalled or been reversed in the Middle East, Russia and Latin America.
Meanwhile, the popularity and credibility of the United States have plummeted to all-time lows. Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah are far more popular among Sunni Muslims, if the polls can be believed, than the President of the United States. Most Muslims now even say they would prefer to see China or France replace America as the dominant power in the region. Finally, while the United States homeland has not been attacked since 9/11—a surprising and welcome development for which the Bush Administration deserves some credit—Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders remain at large, and major terrorist attacks around the world have proliferated. This is not a balance sheet any president would wish for.
Not all of these unwelcome developments are entirely President Bush’s fault, of course, and his various defenders make a range of arguments to try to mitigate the widespread impression that the Administration has failed. Some, for example, insist that the President’s foreign policies have been fundamentally sound but that more time is needed before they will pay off. This seems to be Bush’s own explanation, for example, when he compares himself to Harry Truman, who seemed unsuccessful (and was certainly unpopular) when he left office, but decades later has been proven right about most things. Other of the President’s defenders argue that the problem with the Bush approach is that he was not sufficiently vigorous in implementing it. Two years ago, Newt Gingrich had already started arguing that Bush’s “strategies are not wrong, but they are failing” and calling for the mobilization of more “energy, resources and intensity.”1
This is also apparently the logic of those currently supporting John McCain, who is offering a more vigorous and competent version of the Bush approach. As columnist (and McCain foreign policy adviser) Max Boot has put it,
the leading candidate to scare the snot out of our enemies is a certain former aviator who has been noted for his pugnacity and his unwavering support of the American war effort in Iraq. Ironically, John McCain’s bellicose aura could allow us to achieve more of our objectives peacefully because other countries would be more afraid to mess with him than with most other potential occupants of the Oval Office—or the current one.2
Democrats today are united in the belief not only that America is worse off in the world than it was eight years ago, but that what is required is a course correction more fundamental than simply electing a president with a more “bellicose aura.” Instead of talking tough, lumping all our enemies (especially Muslim ones) into the same basket, and assuming allies will follow the United States simply because it is right or powerful, a Democratic foreign policy would take action to improve America’s standing in the world, inspire allies to work willingly with us, conduct tough but serious diplomacy with adversaries, seek to build national unity and international legitimacy instead of polarizing the public and the world, and avoid catastrophic acts of hubris such as the war in Iraq. Despite one of the closest, longest and most bruising primary nomination battles in the Party’s history, Democrats will now unite behind Barack Obama, who has articulated an approach to foreign policy based on the need to break with the Bush approach—to defend traditional American interests forcefully while grappling with new issues and repairing the breach with an alienated world.
The new Democratic Party consensus marks a stark contrast with divisions of the past, such as those between the Humphrey and (Robert) Kennedy wings of the Party in the late 1960s, the Carter and (Edward) Kennedy wings in the late 1970s, the Nunn and Dukakis wings in the late 1980s, or even the Clinton split with the left wing of the Party in the 1990s. Indeed, even in 2004, Democrats were deeply divided between supporters of Howard Dean, who opposed the Iraq war from the start and wanted to attack the Bush Administration from the Left, and John Kerry, John Edwards and most of the other primary candidates, who felt they had to move to the hawkish center lest they be cast by Bush as soft on national security (an effort that in Kerry’s case did not work). The American people, even many Democrats, were not yet convinced that Bush had led the country in the wrong direction or in any event did not know how to change course. Four years later there is far less doubt.
The fact that ideological divisions no longer plague the Party as deeply as in the past was clear throughout the primary debates, where only minimal foreign policy distinctions among the main candidates—Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards (or Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd, for that matter) emerged. Senator Clinton, of course, did her best to suggest differences with Obama, pointing to issues such as his readiness to meet with leaders of unsavory regimes, his threat to take military action against terrorists in Pakistan if the government there were unable or unwilling to do so, and his willingness to rule out the use of nuclear weapons against terrorists. These, frankly, were sideshows compared to the fundamental foreign policy principles Clinton, Obama and the other main candidates shared. In terms of both grand themes and specific policy proposals, the respective Foreign Affairs articles written by Obama and Clinton in late 2007 could have been adopted by either candidate without too much trouble. (And both essays contrasted sharply with those of Mitt Romney and John McCain.)
Even on Iraq, while Clinton and Obama sparred vigorously over how long and how consistently either had held their position on ending the war, there was essentially no difference between them when it came to what to do about it. Both pledged to begin a gradual and responsible drawdown of U.S. combat forces while remaining ready to leave in place sufficient forces to deter regional aggression, train Iraqis and fight al-Qaeda. (Obama’s insistence on linking a willingness to train the Iraqi armed forces to political progress differed from Clinton’s offer to do so regardless, but this is hardly the stuff of major party rifts.)
The same was true about Obama’s controversial expression of a willingness to meet with leaders from Iran and other dictatorships. Jon Stewart humorously summarized this “tiny distinction” on The Daily Show: “Obama would be willing to meet with these leaders, and so would Hillary, but [she] won’t promise, even though he didn’t really promise it either.” Think also about the simplistic but revealing questions put to all the Democratic candidates in the course of the 21 Democratic debates: Is there a war on terror? “Yes.” Would they pledge that all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by 2013? “No.” Would they swear that Iran would not develop a nuclear capability under their watch? “I will do everything possible to prevent that.” There was very little blue sky between them.
Given the Democratic consensus on the basic approach to foreign policy and the main issues, what about the mindset, style and advisers of the Party’s nominee? There are several features of Obama’s candidacy that would mark his presidency in positive ways. First, as a 47-year-old with diverse ethnic and geographical roots, Obama will bring a new and distinctive approach to today’s changed world. Only 27 years old when the Berlin Wall fell, he has spent nearly all his adult life in the “post-Cold War” world and so is not bound by the Manichean, highly militarized thinking that characterized that period.
Obama is nevertheless clearly aware that military force has a role to play in the world. He has called for a larger U.S. military, advocated the deployment of at least two additional brigades to Afghanistan, and on many occasions said he would not hesitate to use force to protect U.S. national interests. But he understands that America’s well-being is also affected by new challenges like global warming, the global food crisis, cyber-threats, the spread of infectious disease, and the rise of China and India.
Obama’s international background also allows him to see the world in a usefully different way. While Hillary Clinton mocked Obama’s references to having spent time in Indonesia as a child, the fact of living abroad and having a father from Kenya and a stepfather from Indonesia cannot help but give him an innate appreciation for the way in which nearly six billion non-Americans see the world. Critics will somehow try to suggest that this makes him somehow less “American” than competitors without such experience. I would suggest that just a bit more appreciation for the sensitivities of others might have helped the Bush Administration avoid a style of diplomacy and certain policy decisions that have left America more isolated and resented than at any time in its history. Americans should desire international goodwill not just because they like to be liked, but because it can translate into concrete material and financial support on difficult issues such as the war in Afghanistan and the effort to isolate Iran.
The collegiality of the foreign policy team Obama has assembled would also serve him well if he is elected president. In putting together personnel for his campaign, Obama is reported to have told chief strategist David Axelrod that he didn’t want big egos getting in the way of the campaign’s goals—“no drama” was the theme. That same mantra applies to the foreign policy team. Top advisers such as former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice, former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig, former head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff Gregory Craig and the campaign’s foreign policy director Denis McDonough are not only competent and experienced but, taking their cue from the top, collegial and respectful. They can, as Obama puts it, “disagree without being disagreeable.” If Obama wins in November, this would make for a more unified team than is typical of a new administration.
The substantive agreement among the main advisers also contrasts greatly with both the deeply divided Bush team (at least during the first term) and a McCain campaign that seems riven between “realists”, like old McCain friends Richard Burt, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Armitage, and “neocons” like Robert Kagan, Bill Kristol and Randy Scheunemann, the head of the campaign’s foreign policy operation.
Inevitably, many details of what will be an Obama foreign policy remain to be fleshed out. For example, while the principle of willingness to engage directly with adversaries is accepted, decisions will have to be made about whom to engage, when and under precisely what circumstances. Similarly, Obama’s commitment to reach out to conservatives and independents in assembling an administration would be an important manifestation of his desire to get beyond partisanship but will require careful decisions about whom to appoint, to what jobs, and how to make them part of a truly united team. Obviously, within the context of a strategic decision to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama will have to be prepared to make tactical adjustments to changing conditions on the ground, as he has acknowledged many times.
No one should have any illusions about how great the foreign policy challenge will be for Obama or any other president upon taking the oath of office in January 2009. American foreign policy presents no easy options, especially in the wake of Bush’s performance. Obama and other Democrats understand that Bush’s failures were more than failures of implementation. They were also based on a flawed conceptual framework. On this point, Democrats are more united than they have been for two generations. Obama and his team offer not just an opportunity for change, but for strategic intellectual coherence.
Pity John McCain. Not only does he have to run with the Republican albatross around his neck, but history itself seems to conspire against him. His opponent, Barack Obama, offers the nation a chance to change political course, as well as to rise above the racial sins of its past. That’s heady stuff, and it has given the Obama campaign an emotional charge noticeably missing from McCain’s. The big question, though, is whether a President Obama could harness the social energies his campaign has unleashed to deliver on his promise of sweeping political change.
After the long, grinding battle for the Democratic Party’s nomination, it’s easy to forget that Obama is still a political neophyte. With just four years on the national stage, he is the least seasoned applicant for the Oval Office in memory. Nonetheless, in edging out Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama shrewdly turned his rookie status into his prime political asset. By casting himself as an uncorrupted outsider come to purge Washington of its wicked ways, he tapped into popular disgust with the nation’s political class and wrested the top prize from one of its master practitioners.
Now we’ll see whether Obama can work the same political magic in a general election against John McCain. No one should underestimate a battle-hardened campaigner like McCain, but given what Newt Gingrich calls “a catastrophic collapse of trust in Republicans”, the freshmen phenom from Illinois should be considered the favorite. If he wins again, however, he’ll face an even more Herculean labor: bending political Washington to his will.
Obama hasn’t just whipped up a batch of new policies. He’s promising to fix the nation’s broken politics—something very different. He offers himself as a vehicle for transcending old ideological, partisan and racial divides. This sets the stage for a Capra-esque confrontation between a high-minded professor-president and the thoroughly jaded Washington complex of political hacks, hardcore ideologues, influence peddlers and celebrity journalists. And if President Obama thinks a Democratic Congress will have his back, he may be in for a rude surprise.
Just ask Bill Clinton. Democratic lawmakers, of course, were elated by his 1992 victory, but not enough to embrace his “New Democrat” reforms. They pushed for a costly “stimulus package”, while Clinton wanted to restrain Federal spending. They opposed NAFTA; Clinton felt duty-bound to sign it. They demanded action on health care when his instinct was to start with welfare reform. Some of these tensions were philosophical, some tactical. But mostly they reflected the reality that in our scheme of government, with its elaborate checks and balances, the political interests of presidents and lawmakers are only loosely aligned—even when they belong to the same party.
New presidents always call for bold change, but without a reasonably pliant Congress they don’t get very far (see Carter, Jimmy). To overcome Washington’s entrenched forces of inertia, Obama needs to win a clear popular mandate for specific reforms. It also helps to have a hard core of passionate supporters who will stick with you when adversity hits (see Reagan, Ronald).
So far, the suave and sure-footed Obama looks more like the Gipper than the man from Plains, Georgia. With his personal magnetism and oratorical gifts, Obama should be a natural in the bully pulpit. And like Reagan, he would come into office with a strong personal following around the country consisting of black voters, the young (who have turned out in record numbers) and upscale white liberals.
Just as Franklin Roosevelt used the new medium of radio to form an intimate bond with working Americans, Obama has mastered the Internet’s social networking tools to organize and communicate with his coalition. The Obama network includes 750,000 active volunteers and 8,000 online affinity groups. But the most striking statistic of all is 1.27 million—the number of online donors who have made Obama by far the best-funded candidate of 2008. He has raised more than $200 million online, nearly half of it in small chunks of less than $200.
Having revolutionized presidential fundraising, President Obama’s first priority should be changing the way congressional campaigns are financed. That would undoubtedly spark charges of hypocrisy, given Obama’s decision to renege on his pledge to accept public financing for his campaign. Yet it is the political game-changer that makes other reforms possible. As long as lawmakers spend a third or more of their waking hours chasing campaign contributions from special interests and “high net-worth individuals” (a.k.a. fat cats), prospects for big changes of any kind are remote. There are more than 16,000 active Federal lobbyists in Washington. Last year, they spent $2.8 billion, or more than $5 million per member of Congress. This represents a massive investment in the programmatic status quo. Unless Obama can find a way to break the back of Washington’s essentially transactional culture, his talk of ending politics as we know it will ring hollow.
Obama has endorsed a proposal for publicly financing congressional campaigns based on the “Clean Campaign” initiatives adopted by many states. McCain has not, perhaps because he’s already incurred the wrath of conservatives with the relatively mild spending constraints of the McCain-Feingold law. This gives Obama an opening to claim the mantle of radical reform at a time when Americans have lost confidence in the integrity and the problem-solving capacities of their political system.
As the latest round of pathetically weak ethics reform has shown, Congress won’t reform itself absent the intense external pressure that only a determined president can bring to bear. Severing the link between legislation and campaign donations would get an Obama Administration off to the strongest possible start. It would signal a rupture with politics as usual while opening the door to expanded health care coverage, help for the working poor, clean energy investment, college aid for middle-class families, and other progressive priorities.
Iraq will pose another early test for President Obama. Most Americans want out; only diehard conservatives back McCain’s call for staying as long as it takes to achieve “victory.” In a July 15 speech, Obama promised to swiftly end the war in Iraq so the United States can concentrate on fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The public, though, seems deeply ambivalent about the pace and scope of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. Only 18 percent back the Left’s “out now” demands, and voters split evenly over Obama’s proposed 16-month deadline for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq. Even for many war opponents, it seems, timetables aren’t enough; they also want to know how Obama intends to end the war on terms consistent with U.S. national interests and honor.
During the primaries, Obama used his status as the candidate without original sin on Iraq (having opposed the war from the relative obscurity of the Illinois State Senate) to validate his claim to represent the most radical break with President Bush’s policies. Not only did it energize antiwar activists on his behalf, it gave him an all-purpose retort to charges that he lacks gravitas on national security: What good is experience if you lack sound judgment?
Now, however, Obama is walking a tightrope between those activists and a national electorate looking for reassurance that behind his crowd pleasing promises to “end this war” lies a realistic strategy for doing so in a way that secures America’s interests in Iraq and the region. One such interest, surely, is to consolidate the security gains of the past year. For whatever combination of reasons, the level of violence in Iraq continues to fall. In June, a landmark of sorts was reached when more western troops were killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Iraqi leaders, emboldened by their security forces’ growing competence in the field against both al-Qaeda and Shi‘a militias, insist on negotiating a timetable for the removal of U.S. troops.
U.S. military commanders, however, caution that troop withdrawals ought to reflect actual conditions on the ground in Iraq rather than rigid deadlines, which may be logistically infeasible to boot. As president, Obama could not dismiss the views of top military advisers without kindling public doubts about his own paucity of experience in military and foreign affairs. So it is encouraging that Obama has promised to “refine” his 16-month calendar after consulting with commanders in Iraq.
Nonetheless, even this mild show of flexibility triggered a firestorm of protest from antiwar groups. Rather than get the vapors every time Obama says something sensible about Iraq, antiwar activists need to give their nominee some leeway on the issue. The last thing Democrats need is for Obama’s historic presidency to be consumed by a convulsive national debate over “who lost Iraq.”
Besides, Iraq is but one piece of a larger security puzzle Obama must solve. His overriding challenge will be to articulate a progressive redefinition of America’s global role that aims both to undo the damage done by his predecessor and to reassure Americans that he and the Democratic Party can be trusted to keep them safe.
President Bush’s epic mismanagement of the nation’s security is a big reason why he is the least popular President since Richard Nixon. The public’s emphatic thumbs down has substantially closed the national security confidence gap that has plagued Democrats since the McGovern blowout of 1972. On all the “soft power” issues—restoring America’s moral authority, rebuilding relationships with key allies, working with the international community—the public now trusts Democrats more than Republicans. Even on confronting terrorism, the GOP’s once commanding advantage has dwindled to single digits. So Democrats should go into the fall election with confidence that they can win a debate on national security.
But there’s a hitch. McCain has a huge advantage on the “commander in chief” test: 72–48, according to a July Washington Post poll. Other polls have shown that moderate and conservative Democrats have doubts about their Party’s respect for the military and willingness to use force when necessary. Such doubts, along with McCain’s military background and status as a war hero, have helped him defy political gravity and be more popular than his own Party. Obama will have to belie the lingering impression of Democratic weakness if he is to do better in November among the white working-class voters who proved so resistant to him during the primaries.
If national security is Obama’s biggest potential liability, economic anxiety is the force most likely to propel him into the White House.
Through an utterly irresponsible combination of wartime tax cuts and profligate spending on everything from “bridges to nowhere” to the new Medicare drug entitlement, Bush and congressional Republicans have fashioned a pair of fiscal handcuffs for the next president. The Federal deficit, $311 billion for the first half of this fiscal year alone, is on course to shatter all previous records. Although Clinton bequeathed him a surplus, Bush has run the national debt to $9 trillion. As growth falters, we are borrowing heavily from the Chinese, oil sheikhs and others to keep the U.S. economy afloat, at the cost of a weak dollar and growing inflationary pressures on food, energy and consumer goods. On the GOP’s watch, an ill-advised mix of loose fiscal and monetary policy also helped produce the housing bubble and consequent subprime mortgage crisis. With anemic growth, rising inflation, punishing gas prices, the U.S. economy seems to have stumbled into a 1970s time warp.
Health care spending, meanwhile, continues to grow faster than the economy, hobbling U.S. companies in global competition, eating into workers’ raises and busting public budgets. Stagnating incomes for working families have helped to push economic inequality to levels not seen in America since the 1920s. So while Obama has proposed an ambitious domestic agenda, as president he would will likely be forced to spend a lot of his time, as Bill Clinton was in the 1990s, cleaning up after the elephant.
Meanwhile, Senator McCain proposes to make things worse if he becomes president. Not content to extend the Bush tax cuts, which he originally opposed, McCain has cobbled together a $400 billion package of tax breaks as the centerpiece of his economic program. So much for his reputation as one of the GOP’s genuine fiscal hawks.
In addition to the Bush deficits, America’s next president will also have to confront an even bigger fiscal time bomb: the unsustainable growth of the baby boomer’s health and retirement costs. The oldest of 77 million boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare this year, and the coming demographic surge threatens to overwhelm the nation’s finances. With the big entitlement programs already accounting for 42 percent of the Federal budget, their automatic growth threatens to squeeze out public investment in health care, education, the well-being of families and children, anti-poverty initiatives, clean energy and a healthy environment—everything, in short, that progressives care about.
To his credit, Obama has broached the subject of Social Security reform. His remedy—raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax—doesn’t go nearly far enough, and Medicare’s funding problems are many times worse. But at least Obama seems to recognize that new demographic realities require adjustments in the generational compact at the heart of Medicare and Social Security. This will not be easy. After all, President Clinton had hoped to make entitlement reform the capstone of his legacy—until impeachment derailed any chance of bipartisan cooperation. Can Obama rise to the occasion?
The coming fiscal pinch may leave him little choice—and if Obama really is looking for an opportunity to confront partisan polarization, he might as well pick an issue that matters. Just as it took Nixon to unfreeze U.S. relations with “Red” China, it will take a progressive President to forge a bipartisan consensus for modernizing America’s aging social insurance programs. And as the tribune of younger voters, Obama may well feel obliged to make sure they don’t get stuck with the tab, which will surely happen if U.S. leaders once again punt on entitlements reform.
Come what may this fall, Barack Obama already has stirred up the body politic and unleashed new political forces. Washington’s partisan warriors and lawmaker-lobbyist axis, however, are unlikely to fall under his spell of rhetorical enchantment. It will take more than eloquence to convince them to change. Only by continuously re-energizing and mobilizing voters into a national constituency for reform will a President Obama find the power to fix our broken politics.
Gingrich, “Bush and Lincoln: Echoes of the past in today’s strategic mistakes”, Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2006.
Boot, “Go With the Tough Guy”, Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2008.