Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Next Foreign Policy Debate

Since their crushing defeat in November, Democrats have engaged in a seemingly endless parade of introspection on issues like "values" and national security, that they believe cost John Kerry the election. I previously discussed a strategy for Democrats on immigration reform, and I now turn broadly to the issue of foreign policy. In particular, I outline why Democrats should use Iran as a focal point for their new foreign policy agenda.

Once again in the minority, Democrats seem resigned to either enable Bush’s 2nd term foreign policy ambitions by voting blindly for any bill that sounds tough, or pointlessly obstruct the President due to disagreements over the Iraq War. The first strategy is a non-starter. One of the main problems John Kerry had was the persistent baggage produced from the anti-war candidacy of Howard Dean, which made the Senator look weak and unprincipled, and led him to vote against the $87 billion funding package for the troops, after voting to (essentially) authorize the war.

For Congressional Democrats (some with Presidential ambitions of their own) to pursue an overtly hawkish course in the next four years would further alienate the party’s liberal anti-war base, and wreak havoc in 2008 . Senators Bayh and Biden will still be reliable Democratic allies for the President on foreign policy issues, but they will be careful to watch how Senator Clinton votes on major issues as well.

The obstructionist strategy would once again place the Democrats in the position of rooting for things to go wrong, instead of right. While Democrats have made many reasonable critiques of the postwar handling of Iraq, fair and free Iraqi elections (if they happen) on January 30th will dominate the news, and validate Bush’s policies and approach. The Bush team has carefully staged these milestones, (the formation of the CPA, the handover of power to the Iraqis, and now the elections) and stuck to them, so critics are always drowned out when a new stage begins. Democrats will find it impossible to articulate a positive and strong foreign policy vision if they continue to be defined by their opposition to the Iraq War. Thus, another 4 years of negativity and hand wringing, and complaining that Bush is doing things all wrong will not get the Democrats anywhere.

So, I would propose a third strategy, which would hold the line on the current balance between enabling Bush’s agenda and bashing it, combined with a concerted effort to place Iran at the top of the foreign policy agenda. Iran is the puzzle that the neoconservatives cannot solve, because, as elegantly described in another piece from The New Republic, it would be nearly impossible to launch an Iraq-style preemptive attack, even though the nation persists as an illiberal, theocratic, state that continues to develop its nuclear capabilities and actively supports terrorism against the U.S. and Israel. In short, Iran represents the ideal case for regime change according to the neoconservative doctrine, but the execution would be near impossible. (See the Atlantic Monthly’s extended coverage on this

Thus, Iran policy is a perfect opportunity for the Democrats to burnish their national security credentials and develop a positive, forward-looking, foreign policy vision at little cost. Since Bush will be eager to concentrate on his domestic agenda (though external events may prevent this), Democrats can focus on reminding the American people that real threats to our security still persist, namely Iran and North Korea.

The first step is to use the newly conceived liberal think-tank establishment as a laboratory for new foreign policy ideas, with a particular focus on Iran. While conservatives developed their case for the Iraq War over the past ten years in their own think-tanks and elite policy circles, the Democrats have been less effective in developing new ideas through these mechanisms. The key is to produce a few talking points about Iran, recognizing its ascendancy as a threat to U.S. interests in the region, realizing the potential for Iranian meddling in Iraq, and finally (and most importantly) spelling out the connection between their emerging nuclear capabilities and their support for terrorist organizations.

Taking on Iran is a costless proposition for now, because there is no realistic short-term case for war or for appeasement , so the situation hangs in a distressing equilibrium. The Michael Moore/MoveOn.Org wing of the party would not have much to say about Iran, and could hardly destroy centrist candidates who propose taking the issue more seriously. Unlike the difficult vote on Iraq, those on the far left will have a harder time dividing the field when the differences are in style and language, rather than the public record. Eventually, a gutsy Democratic politician will have to stand down this faction, but this is a long term process that should be avoided until the Democrats can recover from the 2004 disaster.

There is a dearth of policy options when it comes to Iran. Conservatives talk about supporting Iranian-American satellite television stations in L.A. to help them beam in pro-Western messages. Others want to build support for a homegrown revolution, which despite the recent student protests, will be difficult. A targeted military strike on nuclear facilities (ala Israel on Iraq) is not considered feasible by most analysts.

The long-term nature of the problem gives Democrats a chance to develop their ideas now and be prepared to debate them in the future. In my next piece, I will try to spell out exactly what that policy should be. I will argue that the Democratic vision should include a stated policy for regime change, financial assistance for rebel groups, "soft power" tactics like exchange programs and radio broadcasts, and a war on terrorist financiers. Armed with a new attitude and image, I think Democrats could begin to shake the nagging perception that they are soft on national security without losing critical support from their base.



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