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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars | The Nation

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The Democratic Foreign Policy Wars

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The top Democrat who puts the least emphasis on foreign affairs and has the fewest number of advisers, John Edwards, has paradoxically said some of the most interesting things during the campaign. Edwards has called the "war on terror" a "bumper sticker, not a plan," and has opposed enlarging the Army, citing the "little rationale given for exactly why we need this many troops." Days before the Iowa caucuses, he more sharply distinguished his position on Iraq from those of Clinton and Obama by calling for a near-total pullout of US forces within ten months. However, in foreign policy circles Edwards's knowledge of world affairs is considered thin, and on the stump he's far more passionate about domestic issues like poverty and trade. His main foreign policy adviser, Mike Signer, was an aide to former Virginia Governor Mark Warner, and his longtime national security adviser in the Senate, Derek Chollet, is a Holbrooke protégé and a fellow at the Center for New American Security, a centrist think tank working to align Democrats closer to the military. Both are relatively hawkish; Signer wrote an essay in 2006 calling for a doctrine of "exemplarism," which he labeled "a militarily strong and morally ambitious version of American exceptionalism."

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Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

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The Clintonites like to view Iraq as an isolated incident. "It is absurd to hold her or any candidate to a litmus-test standard based on a single vote under extremely complicated circumstances," Holbrooke said in a September radio interview. "She has said herself, 'If people don't like that vote, let them go elsewhere.'" To Obama, the vote for the war reflects a more fundamental reflection of poor judgment and political cowardice. Edwards, who co-sponsored the war resolution, has apologized for it and said, "I will not make that mistake again."

Hillary, though, has refused to apologize, and has often been packaged as a "quasi-Margaret Thatcher," Brzezinski said. "She is probably more assertive and willing to use force than her husband," Holbrooke said. Holbrooke acknowledges that in the wake of the Iraq disaster, it will be harder to carry out the type of humanitarian interventions that defined the Clinton Administration. In the case of Darfur, for example, none of the candidates have suggested sending US forces. "The standard will be higher," Holbrooke said. "The tests of an exit strategy will be higher. The risks will be higher." In the 1990s Holbrooke warned of "Vietnamalia syndrome," the aversion to using military power because of failures in Vietnam and Somalia, and says we cannot retreat now, either. "A swing from neoconservatism to neo-isolationism would not be a good deal."

None of the Democratic candidates, of course, are advocating "neo-isolationism." But Obama has been more willing than Clinton to redefine what it means to be "tough" and to rethink the nature of American power, suggesting that the United States act with greater humility. He told the New York Times, "For most of our history our crises have come from using force when we shouldn't, not by failing to use force."

Statements like these raise the question of what a post-Bush foreign policy should look like. The next President must decide: will the "war on terror" continue? What about the Bush doctrine of preventive war or the escalating size of the military budget? Holbrooke says, "The next President needs to scrap a lot of things from the Bush Administration, and torture, Guantánamo and pre-emptive war should be on that list." Wesley Clark, too, says the concept of a "war on terror" was a "terrible mistake," and he calls the Bush doctrine "nonsense, rubbish." On these points Obama and Edwards concur.

But there are other crucial and less frequently mentioned topics to address: how will the next administration deal with a resurgent Russia, a rising China and a Latin America that has rejected the Washington/IMF neoliberal agenda, forging closer regional ties in its place? How will the United States handle rapidly growing world demand for oil and gas as reserves approach their peak? Is it a mistake to view the world primarily through the lens of Islamic extremism? How should the United States relate to Saudi Arabia and other autocratic Gulf states, and how should the United States address the Israel-Palestine conflict? How should we promote prosperity and stability in Africa? The foreign policy advisers in each Democratic campaign are still grappling with the answers.

The disastrous Bush presidency has upended many assumptions in DC policy circles, particularly about America's place in the world. This historic shift is helping to define the race for the Democratic nomination. All the candidates have sought to separate themselves from the Bush Administration--but rejection of the Bush/Cheney approach will not be enough to formulate a strategy for the next administration. As Obama has said, "The question is, What comes next?"

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