On January 29, just after the New Hampshire primary, former president Bill Clinton told Senate Democrats not to be afraid of challenging Bush aggressively. According to one source who attended the meeting, he said that in his view “the Republicans will try to set the agenda and intimidate us and that is why we lost in 2002, and we cannot let that happen again.”

The Democrats are today in a combative mood. In the recent primaries the leading candidates have gone after Bush on domestic issues as if they were all William Jennings Bryan at a July 4 picnic in Nebraska. More important, they have attacked him fiercely on national security grounds. Howard Dean led the way months ago by condemning the invasion of Iraq, breaking the silence the Democrats had held since 9/11. On entering the race in September, Gen. Wesley Clark followed suit and went on to attack the Administration’s “election-driven, poll-driven, ideologically driven foreign policy” on broader grounds. In December John Kerry, previously on the defensive for his vote for the Iraq war resolution, turned his campaign around, and since then he has not only denounced Bush’s “strategy of unilateral and pre-emptive war” but assailed his whole approach to national security. George Bush, he said the night of his victory in Iowa, “has run the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of our country.”

What a transformation in the course of a year! In the fall of 2002 the Democrats cowered before Bush, believing him the invincible Commander in Chief of the “war on terror.” At a time when they controlled the Senate they failed to hold the in-depth hearings they had promised on Iraq, and many who doubted the invasion would serve the interests of American security nevertheless voted for the war resolution. For lack of any debate on the matter, the majority of the American public supported the invasion, and in the Congressional elections the Republicans beat the Democrats easily, running ads putting those who voted against war in the company of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

In a recent interview Bush made it clear that he intends to run as a “war President” and to win as the defender of American security. His task will be more difficult this year than it was for him in 2000, given the continuing conflict in Iraq and the melting away of his justifications for the war. Nonetheless, Americans have always re-elected their war Presidents (two, Truman and Johnson, chose not to seek re-election), and according to polls most see Bush as successfully prosecuting the war on terror and view the Republicans as stronger on national security than the Democrats. Thus, however important healthcare and the economy are to voters, the Democrats must change this perception in order to win. (Everyone knows this–not least the primary voters who left Dean for a candidate with stronger national security credentials.) The question is how.

Some answers were suggested at a two-day conference on alternative national security strategies in Washington in October. The event, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the Century Foundation and The American Prospect magazine, became the occasion for Democratic and moderate Republican foreign policy experts to launch a more or less concerted attack on Administration policies. Those who turned out to speak included Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Hagel and a number of high-level officials from Democratic administrations past: Ted Sorensen, William Perry and Richard Holbrooke, among others. The panels were filled with policy experts, all of whom had served in government as career diplomats, military officers or political appointees, and most of whom now hang out at think tanks such as Brookings, the Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations. The speakers, in other words, represented the group that any Democratic candidate would turn to if elected President. (In fact, a number of them were already advising one or another of the candidates.) In the course of two days they not only laid out an alternate vision of how to deal with international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, but in attacking Administration policies they indicated a strategy for the coming campaign.

The major themes of the conference, struck at the outset by John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress, and Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, were that the Bush Administration has made a radical break with the historic principles of American foreign policy, that it is failing to meet the challenges of 9/11 and that it is weakening the United States abroad and undermining democracy at home. Coming from such establishment figures, these charges were not only remarkable but unprecedented. In the early 1970s Democrats in Congress protested the Vietnam War and attacked the accumulated war powers of “the imperial presidency,” but they didn’t condemn Nixon’s whole foreign policy, much less read it out of the American tradition. Yet speaker after speaker at this conference expressed the view that an ideological fringe group had taken over the Administration and was posing a long-term threat to American national security.

Chairing one of the panels was Samuel Berger, Clinton’s National Security Adviser, who briefly defined the “Bush Doctrine” and pointed to what he saw as its most novel and alarming features: the abandonment of deterrence in favor of pre-emption, in which uncertainty becomes a reason for action, military power is seen as the dominant instrument to advance US national interests and alliances are rejected in favor of ad hoc coalitions. The view is that if we exercise our power, international support will just fall in behind us. These principles, he concluded, “have been proven almost completely wrong” and have led inexorably to “the mess we are in today in Iraq.”

Senator Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized Administration policies indirectly but nonetheless acerbically. “Alliance in multilateral institutions,” he said, “must be understood as expansions of our influence, not as constraints on our power.” He went on to protest that the war on terror cannot be conducted in a purely military fashion and that with US forces overcommitted abroad, “We run the risk of destroying the best military force structure in history.” This military approach, he suggested, was destructive in another way as well. American leadership, he said, rests on maintaining the confidence and trust of others around the world, and “today that confidence and trust are failing.”

That the Administration has undermined the authority of the United States was a theme taken up by a number of speakers, most forcefully by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser. The leading hawk in the Carter Administration, Brzezinski surprised many in the audience by the harshness of his attack. Why is it, he asked, that the United States is at the zenith of its power and the nadir of its political standing in the world? His answer was that the Administration has “embraced…a paranoiac view of the world,” summarized in the expression, “He who is not with us is against us”–a paraphrase of one of Bush’s favorite dictums. The Administration, he continued, has made “the war on terrorism” its central and defining focus. Not only does this reflect “a rather narrow and extremist vision of foreign policy” but it has led to an abstract, quasi-theological view of the enemy–and further to a dramatic intelligence failure on Iraq that “was contributed to and was compensated for by extremist demagogy.”

In proposing alternative strategies to deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the policy experts on the panels argued that the Administration had a narrow, military conception of power and was therefore not using all the means at its disposal or looking at the long-term problems, such as how to deal with failed states.

Toward the end of the proceedings a journalist asked one of the conference organizers if the apparent agreement among the speakers did not conceal real differences. The answer was no. A more complete answer would be that there are shadings of differences, but they are nothing next to the divide that separates Democrats and moderate Republicans from the Bush Administration. In the course of three years, the internationalists in both parties have come to view the Administration’s approach to foreign policy as qualitatively different from that of all other administrations past, and the product of a worldview alien to their own.

The Democrats, in other words, have a strong critique of the Administration and a strong set of policy alternatives. The real question is whether in the coming months they will be able to make their case with the necessary force and conviction. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be overcoming the remaining sense of defeatism within the party.

In a long article on the Democrats and foreign policy in the New York Times Magazine of January 4, James Traub, a journalist who attended the conference, reported that the antiwar rhetoric of Dean, Clark–and then Kerry–had caused considerable dismay among some Democratic strategists. To win in November, he wrote, the Democratic Party must regain its status as the party of national security, which it had in the days of John F. Kennedy and lost during the Vietnam War. The Democratic foreign policy establishment, he continued, today has a muscular approach that recognizes the importance of power, including military power, in promoting American interests. Dean, Kerry and Clark do not disagree with it, he wrote, and yet they have played to the antiwar sentiment and “that deep discomfort with the exercise of power [and] the skepticism about American legitimacy” among primary voters. Thus, Traub concluded, the winner may lose the general election as George McGovern did in 1972 because, as Bill Clinton once observed, “strong and wrong beats weak and right.”

Traub’s characterization of primary voters is a cliché among pundits but it is an anachronism dating from the Vietnam War. Yes, Democratic primary voters oppose Bush’s war in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that they think all uses of American military power are by definition illegitimate. (Many on the left of the party, after all, supported the campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan–and many supported US military actions in Bosnia and Kosovo.) What’s interesting about the argument is what it says about the lessons some Democrats have learned from history.

During the cold war, it is true, the hawks almost always prevailed against the doves. Kennedy, as Traub reminds us, campaigned as a hawk, charging that the Eisenhower Administration had allowed a “missile gap” to develop between US and Soviet forces. (The charge turned out to be false. It was, after all, based on much the same kind of intelligence that the Bush Administration used to justify the war in Iraq: few facts and a great deal of biased interpretation.) Kennedy was, of course, less of a hawk than he seemed in the campaign, but when the situation in Vietnam deteriorated, he put in more American advisers. Both he and Johnson had grave doubts about a major troop commitment but feared that the right would pillory them if they “lost Southeast Asia.” They chose strong, and Johnson was proven wrong, but even after the American public had turned against the war, McGovern was roundly defeated by Nixon. In 1972-74 the liberal Democrats in Congress helped to end the disastrous conflict, but the counteroffensive was not long in coming.

During the Ford Administration the hawks in both parties attacked détente and charged that the liberals lacked the will to fight the cold war. Donald Rumsfeld, then Defense Secretary, and Senator Henry Jackson, a Democrat from Washington State, spearheaded the effort and managed to stop Kissinger’s attempt to conclude a second nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union. At that point the bipartisan foreign policy establishment fell apart. Its left wing dominated the Carter Administration, but after the Shah fell and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, its right wing pinned Carter as weak on national security. In 1980 Ronald Reagan campaigned on old-fashioned cold war rhetoric, and the Republicans carried the day. Then in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and George Bush senior decided to contest the invasion by force. A number of Senate Democrats, including John Kerry (mistakenly in my view), voted against the decision, and some paid a political price for it.

This is the history the Democratic foreign policy establishment knows all too well. It’s what led many Democrats to vote for the resolution on Iraq in 2002. It’s the burden they carry.

Yet what is missing from the cold war history of hawks triumphant is that in 1964 Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide. In that campaign Goldwater represented the populist right wing of his party with its aggressive nationalism and its fundamentalist faith in the efficacy of military superiority. That year he proposed to move away from deterrence and containment to mount a more active challenge to the Soviet Union–one that might include using tactical nuclear weapons to prevent the Soviets from crushing an uprising in Eastern Europe. The bipartisan foreign policy establishment considered Goldwater beyond the pale, and helped Johnson convince the public he was dangerous.

Those speakers at the conference who charged that an ideological fringe group dominates the Administration seemed to be pointing to a similar strategy for this campaign. Of course, George W. Bush cannot be as easily marginalized as Goldwater. Not only is he the incumbent, but because of the realignment of the conservative South over the past three decades, the Republican Party looks much more like the Goldwater party than it did in the mid-1960s. Yet it’s necessary to make the case, as Senator Kerry did in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in December, that Bush has “abandoned the fundamental tenets that have guided our foreign policy for more than half a century,” that the Iraq war has made the country weaker and that the strategy of “unilateral, pre-emptive war” is “profoundly threatening to America’s place in the world and to the safety and prosperity of our own society.” For one thing, the Democrats cannot change the perception that Bush is strong on national security if they accept his own definition of what constitutes an effective strategy. For another, much rides on it. In this election the voters will decide whether the Bush Doctrine, with its dangerous contempt for other nations and the rule of law, is a strange aberration in this country’s history or a lasting feature of its foreign policy.