There is a surreal quality to many of the foreign policy arguments being put forward in the 2008 presidential campaign, particularly among Republican presidential hopefuls. The Bush Administration’s fiasco in Iraq is a transformative event that calls for a fundamental re-thinking of US security strategy. The policies of “preventive” war, forward basing of US troops aimed at intimidating designated adversaries and unbridled support for missile defense and new nuclear weapons should all be cast aside in search of a new approach.
While scrupulously avoiding reference to George W. Bush by name, the top Republican candidates have embraced the worst aspects of his national security policies. No matter how badly things go in Iraq, Senator John McCain has stubbornly adhered to his ill-advised position on the war. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has cast himself as the post-9/11 tough guy, advocating not only a “stay the course” policy in Iraq but also the use of force against Iran. One of Mitt Romney’s most memorable pledges is his call to “double Guantánamo,” while his main defense plank is a promise to increase the armed forces by 100,000 troops. Former Tennessee senator and Law and Order district attorney Fred Thompson is trying to run to the right of the other major Republican candidates, and his foreign policy positions reflect that decision. Perhaps most important for the long term, all the Republican front-runners support maintaining a large and growing US global military presence, including expansion into the heart of the Muslim world.
For their part, major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have not adequately distinguished their views from the Bush doctrine. Each has endorsed one or more of the following actions: threatening a unilateral military strike in the territory of an allied country; keeping all options “on the table”–including, presumably, the use of nuclear weapons–in addressing Iran’s nuclear program; increasing the Army and Marines by 80,000 or more troops and increasing the military budget.
In short, the door is open for a thoroughgoing debate on the future of US security policy that goes beyond the urgent question of how to get out of Iraq. So far, mainstream Democrats have failed to seize this historic moment.
The political underpinning of this failure of imagination comes from Democratic consultants, pollsters and think tanks, who argue that the party’s candidates need to project an image of toughness to overcome the “security gap” that has existed in public perceptions of Republicans versus Democrats since the end of the Vietnam War. But this logic rests on a fatal flaw–the assumption that the immediate future will continue to resemble the pattern of the past three decades. In Iraq the disastrous consequences of the Bush Administration’s use of military force against a country that posed no imminent threat to the United States are there for all to see. Rather than projecting a posture of toughness, what is needed is an effective plan for defending the United States and its allies.