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Sunday, May 08, 2005
One of the amazing things about our foreign policy debates, at least when Republicans control the Presidency, is that they are always portrayed as "hawks vs. doves". What I mean by this that the temperment of the two parties, rather than the specific policy, is what gets debated. (This doesn't happen when Democrats are in office, because the Republicans usually split with some supporting the Democrats' foreign policy and others opposing it, as happened with the Kosovo bombing campaign.)

The GOP, according to the stereotype, is the tough, hawkish, "daddy" party, while the Democrats are the soft, dovish, "mommy" party. Of course, this is a killer when foreign policy is debated, because the American public is fundamentally hawkish. (Yes, they did eventually oppose the Vietnam War, but it took years for that public sentiment to gel.)

Of course, given that their interests are served by it, it is no surprise that the Republicans debate all their foreign policy proposals in these terms. They are always talking about being tough on terror, or Saddam, or Iran, or North Korea, or Cuba. The response of many Democrats has often been to try to deny the Republicans an issue by showing that they can be "tough" too. This had a lot to do with why Truman and LBJ pursued ill-advised wars in Korea and Vietnam.

This is all Politics 101; however, the problem is that defining the world in terms of hawks and doves really costs the Democrats when the Republicans pursue a dumb war, as is the case in Iraq. Many Democrats supported the President when he invaded Iraq, including luminaries such as John Kerry, Joseph Biden, Joseph Lieberman, and Hillary Clinton. Many Democrats won't admit that the reason for such support wasn't some principled belief that we needed to invade Iraq in response to a terrorist attack that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with, but rather the fear that they would be portrayed as "weak" by the Republicans if they didn't support it.

What irks me most about this is that many Democrats, to this day and despite the obvious failures in Iraq, act as if the anti-war Democrats, like Howard Dean, were unsophisticated peaceniks with no idea how the world worked. Like in Vietnam, the peaceniks were actually correct in Iraq. And reflexive acceptance of hawkish Republican foreign policy is no more sophisticated than reflexive pacifism. (Really, has there ever been a war that Senator Lieberman opposed? Someone should ask him this sometime.)

There's plenty of conflicting recommendations for how the Democrats should reposition themselves on foreign policy, but here's a simple suggestion: support wars that are winnable, based on solid evidence and where the security of the country is at risk. Oppose wars that do not meet those criteria. And when the war doesn't meet that criteria, don't be afraid to vote "no" on it and let the Republicans label you "soft". The fact is, Howard Dean, despite being condemned by conservative pundits and more than a few centrist Democrats as a left-wing pacifist, is actually a centrist who simply was able to figure out that the Iraq war was a bad idea. (He supported a number of previous military campaigns.)

In contrast, many of the people who are considered "experts" on foreign policy within the party supported the war. Rather than condeming Gov. Dean and the other people who were right on Iraq as "shrill", maybe it's time the centrist Democrats examine whether the people who were wrong on Iraq were "dumb". And maybe being willing to oppose a war once in awhile should be considered just as important a factor in choosing future Democratic leaders as being willing to support a war is.


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