How to Talk Foreign Policy

Thanks to improving casualty statistics from Iraq and worsening numbers from our economy, recent months have seen the presidential campaign move toward an increasing focus on domestic issues. These same factors, however, make it all but inevitable that Republicans will run in 2008 on a strong national security message in an effort to counteract an economic situation that will almost certainly run in the Democrats' favor. And if either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama hopes to prevail, they're going to have to come up with something better than what was on display during their brief foreign-policy tussle during Monday night's debate. Hillary Clinton, attempting to drive the knife into Obama's back, warned that if John McCain is the Republican nominee, "we know that once again we will have a general election about national security. That is what will happen. I believe of any one of us, I am better positioned and better able to take on John McCain or any Republican when it comes to issues about protecting and defending our country and promoting our interest in the world."

This was a Clinton debacle in the making; a pitch tailor-made for Barack Obama to slam out of the park by quipping, "I don't think the way to beat Republicans on national security is by supporting their catastrophic invasions."

Instead, John Edwards talked for a while about lobbyists, and then Obama weakly returned the conversation to Clinton's comment, saying, "I believe that the way we are going to take on somebody like a John McCain on national security is not that we're sort of -- we've been sort of like John McCain, but not completely, you know, we voted for the war, but we had reservations." Then, figuring this wasn't abstract enough, he went meta: "I think it's going to be somebody who can serve as a strong contrast and say, 'we've got to overcome the politics of fear in this country.'"

I'm sympathetic to what I think Obama was trying to say, but the point is better put more simply -- to have the best shot at winning national security arguments with John McCain, the Democrats need a candidate who didn't support the invasion of Iraq. After all, McCain won't be tarred with the specific acts of "incompetence" that are frequently (and misleadingly) alleged to have been responsible for disaster in Iraq. The Democratic nominee is going to have to argue that there is a fundamental strategic difference in their approach and that of the Republican nominee.

One ideal way to illustrate the difference would be to point out that the Republican approach leads to huge disasters like Iraq, whereas the alternative doesn't. Not anything so high-flying (and, frankly, puny-sounding) as a denunciation of "the politics of fear," but something concrete like, "it seems to me that pulling troops out of Afghanistan so that Osama bin Laden could escape and the Taliban could regroup near the Pakistani border was probably a mistake. Nor was it a good idea to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on a war of choice that wound up speeding nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. Unlike Sen. McCain, I didn't support those moves."

Instead, Obama offered "the politics of fear." And, worse, we got a continuation of front-runner Hillary Clinton's politics of militarism. Throughout the campaign, there's been little consideration of the lessons future politicians will take if they see that having backed a Republican president in launching a war of choice that proved the most catastrophic foreign-policy mistake of the past 25 years didn't even cost Clinton the Democratic Party's nomination. Are the next crop of senators and representatives asked to endorse a preventive war on flimsy evidence going to think twice, or are they going to do what John Kerry and John Edwards did in 2002 and listen to political consultants who remind them that blind support for military adventures is crucial to one's presidential ambitions?

Meanwhile, for the purposes of the campaign I'd certainly like to believe that faced with a choice between a Republican decorated war hero and veteran senator, and a Democratic ex-first lady and junior senator, both of whom supported the invasion of Iraq, both of whom became early critics of Donald Rumsfeld's conduct of the occupation, and both of whom support long-term American military engagement in Iraqi affairs, that the American people will come down on Clinton's side. But I pay attention to this stuff. I know that Clinton's an open-minded person who takes advice from a wide circle of people and may well conduct an excellent foreign policy once in office. I also know that McCain is a committed militarist, a pre-September 11 advocate of "rogue state rollback," and a politician who seems to have few firm beliefs beyond an inchoate nationalism. But, realistically, insofar as the campaign turns on national security issues (the economy will, of course, also matter) the average person is going to go for the popular war hero.

Obama's approach is better but not, frankly, anywhere near as much better as one would hope. For months, he's been unwilling to make a forceful case from the left on national security issues in a Democratic primary, so it's far from clear that he would, in practice, make the sort of strong arguments his record leaves him capable of making. If McCain (or, for that matter, Mitt Romney) starts talking about how in a Democratic administration North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Hamas, al-Qaeda, and some Iraqi dude who doesn't like having a foreign army occupy his country are all going to team up and kill your children, it won't do to respond by whining about the politics of fear. He'll have to learn to say something in response, perhaps about how the real best way to keep Americans safe is with a focused, targeted effort that gives us the maximum chance of actually killing or capturing our deadliest foes rather than one that lets them escape while needlessly stirring up unrelated trouble that multiplies the number of adversaries we face.

Alternatively, liberals can go back to the dreary sport of reading the papers and hoping for recession. It might even work for an election or two. But as we saw in the second half of the Cold War, a party that's seen as unfit to conduct foreign policy is a party that's rarely going to find itself in the White House. The first step to countering that perception is to establish a clear and meaningful strategic alternative between what Democrats are selling and the conservative nostrums that have put the country on such a disastrous course in recent years.

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