Friday, January 25, 2008

The Foreign Policy Election

I disagree with Matthew Yglesias on just about everything, but he helps clarify party differences on foreign policy and electoral choice over at the American Prospect:

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.
Yglesias might want to be careful in his recommendations. Note how he does not concede America's increasing progress in the Iraq war.

Military success is the biggest foreign policy fact of election '08, and frankly, it's the reason all the Democrats fear McCain as they do.

Progress on the war illustrates the reality of any public policy, foreign or domestic: policies are not always immediately effective; unintended consequences often create new dilemmas requiring adjustments and reconsideration.

This is what happened in the war.

The Bush administration took the Afghanistan model and applied it to Iraq. The three-week anti-Saddam incursion brilliantly toppled the regime in Baghdad, but faulty assumptions left the U.S. unprepared for the murderous reign of mayhem and terror to follow.

Yet the Bush administration adapted - pushing through a troop increase under the counter-insurgency plan of General David Petraeus - achieving the greatest strategic comeback in the post-World War II era.

John McCain can claim foresight and resolve on such progress, and the Democrats will be hard-pressed to respond. We can move ahead in Afghanistan and in the broader war on terror with a combination of increased manpower in South Asia and smarter policies in counterterrorism and antiproliferation.

The policies that Yglesias wants candidates to denounce are the very policies the Democrats backed in Congress following 9/11.

The outcome of the debate will further demonstrate the party's fundamental weakness on an issue that may be receding to the background amid economic uncertaintly, but one that will rush to the front of the policy agenda at news of the next international crisis and accompanying calls for American leadership.