In early February I sat in a Starbucks in downtown Washington with Dan Feldman, who is helping to organize Senator John Kerry's foreign-policy team. We discussed Kerry's vision of America's role in the world, and the people who might play important roles in his Administration if he is elected President, touching on everything from the crucial issue of Iraq and the simmering crises in North Korea and Iran to NATO and the proper balance between international alliances and the brute force necessary to secure American interests abroad—collectively, the foreign-policy questions that are central to the next election, and to the next four years.
Even before Kerry triumphed in the primaries, foreign policy generally, and Iraq specifically, dominated the campaign—a state of affairs from which he unquestionably benefited, though the benefits may not hold indefinitely. His experience, both as a senator and as a combat veteran, proved instrumental in his victory, and as the situation deteriorates overseas, he and Bush, who was expected to be comfortably ahead, are essentially running neck and neck. At the same time, Kerry has come under constant attack for failing to articulate a clear plan to halt Iraq's slide into anarchy.
As we discussed this, Feldman outlined a course that starkly departed from the one charted by President Bush, yet was equally unlike the approach—characterized by soft multilateralism and fealty to the United Nations—portrayed by Republicans as typical of Democratic foreign policy. Feldman emphasized the need for skilled diplomatic management and a willingness to use force abroad, but also an essential caution. The more he spoke, the more he called to mind the policies of the first Bush Administration.
George H.W. Bush has receded into history. But his Administration's traditional if unimaginative attitude toward foreign relations lives on through his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who re-emerged two years ago as one of the most unabashed and difficult-to-dismiss critics of the buildup to war in Iraq. Democrats once viewed Scowcroft as the champion of an amoral and shortsighted foreign policy that sacrificed American values in order to achieve stable relations with great powers and avoid trouble in hot spots like the Balkans (a view, incidentally, shared by many of the neoconservatives who surround the current President). It was Scowcroft who secretly traveled to Beijing shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre to reassure the Chinese that government-to-government relations needn't suffer despite the bipartisan indignation of the American public. But in 2002, lacking a consistent criticism of the drive toward war, many Democrats eagerly took shelter in Scowcroft's high-profile opposition.
Wondering how he would take it, I said to Feldman, "What you're describing to me sounds a lot like what I'd expect from Brent Scowcroft."
"Yes," he said. "I think a lot of what you'd see from a Kerry Administration might be like that. I think there'd be a lot of similarities." When I later made the same suggestion to Kerry's chief foreign-policy adviser, Rand Beers, he agreed.
John Kerry has yet to flesh out his positions on many key foreign-policy questions. But he has nonetheless provided clues—through his speeches, public statements, and choice of advisers—to how he would govern if elected. What's more, it's not difficult to identify the people he would be likely to rely on in the area of foreign policy—they're a close-knit group, many of them veterans of the Clinton Administration. During the spring I interviewed a wide range of people who are in the running for roles in a Kerry Administration, including such probable candidates for Secretary of State as Senator Joseph Biden and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, current Kerry advisers such as Jonathan Winer and Rand Beers, and many of the lower-level bureaucrats and congressional staffers who would fill out the foreign-policy apparatus of a new Democratic Administration.
Last December, Kerry delivered a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations titled "Making America Secure Again," in which he declared, "Those of us who seek the Democratic presidential nomination owe the American people more than just anger, more than just criticisms of the Bush policy, or even piecemeal solutions. We need to convince America that we Democrats are responsible stewards of our national security and of America's role in the world."
As a Democrat trying to unseat a Republican in time of war, Kerry faces a historic challenge. In the period after Vietnam the Democratic Party became a house divided against itself, with an articulate and energetic dovish base battling a diffuse but larger Cold War constituency. This had two effects. First, it created a poisonous dynamic whereby Democratic politicians came to approach national-security policy less in substantive than in tactical terms—searching for the sweet spot of political safety or attempting to dispense with national security as quickly as possible in order to move on to matters with which they were more comfortable. Over the years this habit of reflexively adopting the politically expedient position sent voters a clear message: many Democratic politicians were just not serious about national security. The second effect was to cede the ideological and intellectual battlefield to Republicans. In the post-Cold War era Republicans developed a foreign-policy vision based on the notion that America should aggressively assert itself abroad, and in which the problem of Saddam Hussein became an idée fixe.
These twin perceptions—of Democratic feebleness and Republican assuredness—combined to devastating effect in the 2002 elections. Democrats were trounced, and President Bush seemed unstoppable. But as conditions in Iraq have grown steadily worse, the terrain has shifted. What voters once viewed as the President's steely resolve many now see as stubbornness, which has led to skepticism about his practical know-how and ability to carry out the mission of stabilizing and democratizing Iraq. Against this backdrop Kerry's foreign policy could prove attractive.
Democratic foreign-policy hands tend to be less ideologically driven than Republican ones. Their strengths lean toward technocratic expertise and procedural competence rather than theories and grand visions. This lack of partisan edge is best illustrated by the fact that two of Kerry's top advisers served on Bush's National Security Council staff as recently as last year (Beers as senior director for counterterrorism, and Flynt Leverett as senior director for Middle East initiatives). The team that advised candidate Bush in 1999 and 2000—the so-called "Vulcans"—was practically the mirror opposite of the Kerry team. Though all its members had served at least one stint in government, most had held political appointments rather than working for decades in the security bureaucracy, as Beers did. And whereas Kerry's team is the embodiment of the nation's professional national-security apparatus, key members of Bush's team, such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, had spent entire careers trying to overthrow it.
In a telling sign of the parties' differences on foreign policy, discussion of the next Secretary of State is rampant among Democrats. (The issue of who would run the Pentagon—more of a power base in Republican Administrations, particularly this one—is a subject of much less debate.) Speculation focuses primarily on Richard Holbrooke, Clinton's former ambassador to the United Nations, who gained fame and no little notoriety for his peacemaking efforts in Bosnia; and Joseph Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who remains its senior Democratic member. Both men are stars in the somewhat gray firmament of Democratic foreign policy; both boast outsize personalities and loyal followings; and the two scarcely differ in their approach to the major foreign-policy issues of the moment.