SINCE 1759

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The Democrats' foreign policy inspiration, c. 1988

Illiberal Foreign Policy
Dukakis Democrats

The assumption is a perfect fit for the reactionary-conservative narrative of the last half century: Republicans know national security and foreign policy. Democrats don’t. It’s an outlandish myth. Democrats dating back to Woodrow Wilson have been the true party of warmongers and jingoes. Republicans only watched, and lately learned, and learned badly, as the experiences of the Reagan-Bush-Bush years amply show. But here go the Democrats now, playing understudy to Republicans' dismal foreign-policy act.

The national security state was a creation of Harry Truman, the cold war a steroid both parties injected with Barry Bonds abandon for 50 years. Besides women, John Kennedy’s biggest weakness was his compulsive hawkishness and night-sweats over that ghostly “missile gap.” Lyndon Johnson never met an escalation he couldn’t resist. Even Jimmy Carter — disproportionately remembered for that Iranian hostage crisis that did to 52 Americans for 444 days what American foreign policy has been doing to tens of millions for a few decades — had lust in his heart for the MX missile (that nutty nuke job on rails). That was when Carter wasn’t conducting the most constructive Mideast policy of any president before or since. Democrats during and after World War II created the international trade, banking and security apparatus Republicans have been dismantling since Ronald Reagan.

What have Republicans done in foreign policy over those years? Give them credit: They dug Democratic holes deeper with Dwight Eisenhower’s stalemate in Korea and Richard Nixon’s folly in Vietnam and Cambodia (winning back China doesn’t make up for destabilizing Cambodia enough to trigger a genocide). Then they applied the wrong lessons on their own. Reagan had his Rambo acts in Grenada and Central America while illegally trading for hostages with Iran and failing some 300 U.S. Marines in Beirut. Reagan and the first Bush poured money and arms into the hands of the likes of Osama bin Laden’s Arab army in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, literally nurturing monsters we’ve been fighting since.

Reagan won the cold war? Please. As George F. Kennan, the late diplomat whose famous “X”-signed telegram to Truman was the basis for the policy of Soviet containment, and the cold war that ensued, wrote in 2002: “Nobody—no country, no party, no person—‘won’ the cold war. It was a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other party. It greatly overstrained the economic resources of both countries, leaving both, by the end of the 1980's, confronted with heavy financial, social and, in the case of the Russians, political problems that neither had anticipated and for which neither was fully prepared.”

But simple-minded assumptions are attractive to an electorate that likes its foreign policy in black and white. If Ronald Reagan could think that he was among the liberators of Nazi death camps (he very much did, even though he was loitering about movie sets in Hollywood at the time), the second George Bush can think that he’s doing God’s work as he goes about demolishing parts of the world while turning the United States into a scared Sparta of meat-headed militarism.

That’s what makes today’s Democrats, when they turn their attention to foreign policy, so dishearteningly embarrassing. It’s been frightful, since the Carter years, to watch them try to outdo Republican jingoism with jingoism of their own (Bill Clinton was the exception: the 1990s put foreign policy on autopilot until the 9/11 hijackers flipped that switch). First there’s been Hillary Clinton trying to sound like JFK in his 1960 debates with sweaty Dick — all missiles, all the time. Then there was that that Foreign Affairs essay by Barack Obama, where he talks of “military options” against Iran, bulking up the military, keeping “over-the-horizon” troops in Iraq and “hunting down” al-Qaeda like he’s a neocon with a human face.

And then the inevitable Clinton-Obama confrontation over foreign affairs in last week’s YouTube debate. CNN’s Anderson cooper asked them if they’d meet with the leaders of Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela “to bridge the gap that divides our country.” Long and short of it: Obama said he would, and was ridiculed for it (“I can see the ad now,” liberal David Corn wrote in the Nation, “Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, Bashar al-Assad, and Hugo Chavez all strolling into the White House, and a grinning Barack Obama greeting them…). Clinton said she wouldn’t, was called a respectable realist.

Yet the question itself reveals the stupidity at the heart of American foreign-policy assumptions — the kind of stupidity that’s put the country in a corner of its own from not engaging with others, regardless of the enmity quotient. The Bush administration has all of two foreign-policy victories: Getting North Korea and Libya to lay off nukes. Those are the two countries it negotiated with. It’s been failing miserably elsewhere from its refusal to negotiate with anyone else (except when it’s arming Iraqi insurgents). Clinton-type Democrats, of course, are playing to a drum-beating press, and the press is playing to the public’s grade-school foreign policy assumptions. Obviously negotiations are the starting point of solutions.

Obviously hawkish posturing has been proven again and again to fuel enmity and escalate the very dangers we claim to be battling. But in this election as in so many cold war-era elections, candidates, as Obama quickly found out, can’t say the obvious, only the expedient, no matter how deranged and dangerous. It’s what got George W. Bush elected. Twice. Democrats have learned that lesson. And we thought 2008 might make a difference.

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