Neocon Lessons for Democrats

As Democrats comb the 2004 election results for lessons, one should be obvious: we need bolder, newer ideas, particularly in this post-9/11 world in the realm of foreign policy. Just as neocons have provided much of the spark and intellectual energy behind modern-day Republicanism, Democrats need a “neoprogressive” movement to give purpose and vision to their party—and political hope to their future candidates.

Big ideas are needed in a changing, challenging international environment. They are also good politics. Candidates with big ideas convey purpose and gravity. They also convey resoluteness and firm beliefs—traits that helped President George W. Bush appeal to voters on the grounds that he had character and shared their values.

Neocons have shown how to come up with big ideas in recent years. They provided some of the intellectual heft and vision behind President Ronald Reagan’s outlandish belief that the Berlin Wall should come down. More recent notable examples are Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s conviction that the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could help remake the Middle East, former foreign-policy adviser Richard Perle’s willingness to confront Saudi Arabia over its internal policies and the beliefs of John Bolton, Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, that arms control can be used in a more confrontational way to put pressure on extremist regimes.

One need not agree with much of the neocon movement to admire its intellectual vigor and its ambitious approach. Indeed, neocons can be dangerous. Many bear considerable intellectual responsibility for trivializing the costs and difficulties of war in Iraq. And the doctrine of preemption, a classic neoconservative type of concept, contributed to an international image of an America unbound, to use Ivo Daalder and Jim Lindsay’s phrase.

But big ideas are better than no ideas. The key is to ensure that they are debated and vetted, not to squelch them in advance.

Some might disagree with this assessment, at least in political terms, claiming that what Democrats need is simple credibility on foreign policy so that they can neutralize the issue and out-compete Republicans on domestic turf. This perspective, which seems to have guided much of the Kerry campaign this year, begs the question of how one obtains credibility in the first place. Purple hearts from Vietnam, however commendable, do not suffice—which should be no surprise since Bill Clinton defeated two war heroes and Ronald Reagan defeated a Naval Academy graduate in their respective runs for the White House.

Nor is it enough to run on a platform of multilateralism, however right in principle that basic tenet of John Kerry’s campaign may have been. Multilateralism is a means and not an end; it describes process more than goals or vision.

In preparing for 2006 and 2008, Democrats need to think about how they would like history books to look back on their tenures in office should they be so fortunate as to regain the White House and/or the Congress. Then they should work backward, fashioning concrete ideas to create those legacies and political strategies for how to sell them. Among the candidate ideas worthy of exploration:

  • A long-term strategy to win the war on terror. Virtually all Democrats certainly agree with Bush that current al-Qaeda leadership and followers must be destroyed using all tools of American power. But as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has noted several times, we have no long-term strategy to prevent the next generation of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups from being created. A few small programs to support nongovernmental organizations in the Arab world and similar efforts to date from the Bush administration do not suffice. Democrats need a vision to tackle this challenge, including elements such as a major push for educational reform and economic opportunity in Islamic countries, with U.S. resources to back up the efforts where appropriate.

  • Energy policy. Kerry talked about getting the U.S. off its dependence on Mideast oil, and addressing the global-warming problem as well, but it was far from clear how he intended to do either. Tax subsidies for hybrid cars and greater research funds for alternative energies have their place. So might a major proposal to subsidize production of biomass fuels in the United States. It could gradually redirect existing farm subsidies away from food crops in the process. That in turn could provide the basis for breaking the logjam on global trade talks, and help create economic opportunities for farmers in developing countries as well.

  • Training and equipping African militaries to stop civil conflict. The Clinton administration began a program to train and equip African militaries for peacekeeping; the Bush administration kept it on life support at about $10 million a year while advocating, but not accomplishing, a major expansion of the effort. Democrats should wholeheartedly promote this concept and work relentlessly to provide at least $100 million a year for it. The goal should be for Africans to handle most of their continent’s many serious conflicts principally on their own, with the potential for hundreds of thousands of lives a year to be saved.

  • A major child-survival initiative. Clinton and Bush have both rightly underscored the need to address the terrible scourge of HIV/AIDS. But if this threat merits a bold initiative, so do the traditional scourges of malaria, childhood diseases and malnutrition.

Moreover, all of these are linked; the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS programs is ultimately limited most by the quality of local health networks throughout the world, which are also relevant to increasing vaccination rates and countering childhood diseases. A broader health and nutrition agenda might cost the U.S. $10 billion a year instead of the $2 billion to $3 billion now planned for HIV/AIDS alone. If Democrats need an issue to show that they too care about morality, and want to back up Kerry’s words that “faith without works is dead,” there can be few more worthy ways to spend money.

Democrats used to be the country’s greatest visionaries in foreign policy. And indeed many neocons came from their ranks. It is time now for the party to reclaim the best of its proud traditions. The easiest time to be innovative, and to take risks, is when you have little to lose. Democrats couldn’t ask for a better moment.