When John McCain told a Stanford University audience a year ago that he envisions a “League of Democracies” of “like-minded nations working together in the cause of peace,” I’m sure there were plenty of people who cyncially wrote this off as just another layer in the senator’s undercooked foreign policy lasagna and his ongoing pursuit of independents and disenchanted partisans. “We Americans must be willing to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies,” then, not forgetting the base: “We could act where the U.N fails to act …with or without Moscow’s and Beijing’s approval.”
The pitch may have sounded retro-Clinton, but the goals aren’t so foreign, or unwelcome, to McCain’s close coterie of foreign policy advisors, like Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and a host of other signatories to the numerous Project for a New American Century declarations. It is a well-worn point that there is but a sliver of difference between neoconservatism and the liberal interventionists who once inhabited the Clinton Administration – they largely agree on the why and most of the time how, but not necessarily on where to throw American military strength around. Our own Phil Giraldi has had a laudable grasp of this tangled family tree ahead of the fall elections.
To the point, ditching the much maligned U.N for a more malleable “coalition of the willing,” unfettered by a disagreeable Security Council, especially if it “could impose sanctions on Iran and thwart its nuclear ambitions,” as McCain opined at Stanford, would be as welcome to PNAC as it would assumably be to the Center for a New American Security.
That a President McCain would advance most if not all the foreign policy interests of his neo-conservative counselors seems pretty obvious. His foreign policy speeches, particularly his political advertisements, impromptu back and forth with reporters, his jabs at Obama over Ahmadinejad, are like the clanging chains of a ghost, except it’s not Jacob Marley, it’s George W. Bush.
That said, we ought to move our gaze to Barack Obama but quickly. Now is the time where the foreign policy advisors and courtiers-in-waiting on the Clinton team are either too stunned to move or are already scrambling for a way to ingratiate their way over to the winner. Perhaps the smart ones already have, weeks ago. Since, in my view, most of the more zealous liberal interventionists – and early supporters of the Iraq invasion — from the Clinton years had been hunkered down with the first lady, it will be important to watch if they are accepted into Obama’s fold, where they will find a patch of land to till, and what kind of influence they might have on the White House going forward.
Granted, not all of Obama’s advisors were that palatable to begin with. As I wrote last year, the sum of their parts – in the Clinton, Obama and Edwards camps – reeked of status quo. They were dangerous in that they affected the worst of establishment atrophe, the worst of imperial court culture, the worst of inside-the-beltway self-preservation and denial.
However, the people Obama brought on board at the time evoked some of the now-fabled “change,” in that he enlisted real Iraq War critics like Larry Korb, unlike Clinton, who trucked with her husband’s old team – Albright, Holbrooke, Indyk, Feinstein and others, most of whom perhaps projected their own hopes for the future by eagerly defending Bush’s authority to wage war without U.N approval in 2003. Where will they all go now?
And the galaxy expands from there. There are those who have never quite declared their allegiance, but have been linked to Clinton in so many ways, or have deftly played the fence. Most seem to work in tandem on the ideal agenda, which can probably be summed up in Peter Beinart’s 2007 tome : The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. His book launch, coincidentally, was hosted by Nancy Jacobsen and Mark Penn and attended by both Clintons.
This policy world is also inhabited by such Democratic foreign policy strivers as Anne-Marie Slaughter and G. John Ikenberry, who authored for Princeton a report in 2006, “Forging a World of Liberty Under Law,” which laid out the tenets of a “Concert of Democracies” (sound familiar?) which again, would set up a competitor to the U.N, leaving out “undemocratic” nations and pursuing the laudable goals of protecting nascent democracies, engaging tyranny and sharing in global economic, environmental and humanitarian interests.
In a 2006 American Interest article headlined “Democracies of the World Unite,” Ivo Daalder, an Obama advisor, and James Lindsay, a former Clinton official, endorse the “Concert of Democracies” idea. “Over time, Concert members would follow NATO’s lead and develop common doctrine, promote joint training and planning, and enhance interoperability among the militaries, police forces and intelligence agencies,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, other adherents (like all approaches, there are competing schools within this Democratic campus involving the degrees to which they support military interventionism, preventative war, using military force for humanitarian causes and the enduring US presence in Iraq, but I won’t go into that here) like former Edwards advisor Derek Chollet and CSIS fellow Michele Flournoy, started their own think tank, the aforementioned Center for a New American Security, in 2007.
On its website, one can find the writings of Petreaus counterinsurgency pitchman Lt. Col. John Nagl, and fair weather Iraq expert Michael O’Hanlon. Its founders produce glossy, muscular sounding reports like “Making America Grand Again: Toward a New Grand Strategy,” and “The Inheritance and the Way Forward.”
On the most part, the rhetoric seems harmless enough: restore America’s standing abroad, rebuild the military, stay strong but concentrate, too, on shared goals of the international community, stop indicating to Muslims that you hate them. But I think a quote from the second report bears highlighting:
“The next president will have to convince the American people and their representatives in Congress to reject the neo-isolationist impulses they may feel in the wake of Iraq in order to embrace a smarter and more selective form of engagement. Our nation’s history and power—economic, military, and cultural—give the United States a unique role in the world. The United States has been and will continue to be the preeminent leader in the international community, and we cannot protect or advance our interests in a globalized world if we do not continue to serve in that role. But with this unique role come great responsibilities.”
Unfortunately, while this is sandwiched between many assurances that the CNAS policy would look nothing like the unilateral approaches of the Bush administration, and amid critiques about the GWOT, the handling of Iraq and the decimation of the armed forces, this sounds a lot like the high-minded grist of another foreign policy fraternity, on the other side. Uncomfortably familiar.
We need to watch where these people go now, and listen to what they say. We should use this space as a forum.
There is probably no such luck that someone like the adored, late Bill Odom will be tapped to represent the “neo-isolationist” point of view, but there is a speck of hope that Obama won’t be so quick to usher in another Clinton era, or another war. Whether that hope is warranted at this point remains to be seen.