The Vision Thing
The Democrats and Marshall's mind.


Stanley Kurtz

Looks like I’m in an exchange with Joshua Micah Marshall. Narrowly speaking, the issue at play is Marshall’s Washington Monthly cover story, “Practice to Deceive.” In that piece, Marshall accuses the Bush administration of acting (under the guidance of neocon hawks) to deceive the American people about the nature and scope of its plans in the Middle East. According to Marshall, the administration’s secret purpose is to take over and democratize most of the Middle East. Democratic reform is the true goal of the administration’s policy, and weapons of mass destruction, says Marshall, are a merely secondary consideration that serves to cover, or distract from, the actual aim.

As I argue in “Dem’s Dilemma,” Marshall’s charge of deception is false. I also claim, in “Dem’s Dilemma,” that Marshall’s last-minute decision to drop his support for the war, his fevered account of the supposedly disastrous course of the invasion, and his current charges of deception against the administration, all reflect the deeper political predicament now faced by the Democrats. Marshall has now replied to “Dem’s Dilemma,” and I’d like to address his reply.

Marshall acknowledges that neoconservative hawks outside the administration have been open about their interest in democratizing the Middle East. His point, he says, is that the administration itself has not been honest about the fact that it shares the goals and intentions of the maximalist democratizing neocons.

Yet, after repeating his charge of deception, Marshall acknowledges that the administration has not yet made up its mind about whether to follow the maximalist, democratizing, multiple-regime-change neocon vision. Indeed, Marshall says that he has pinned his hopes for the future on the fact of the administration’s continued openness to different policy options. Maybe, says Marshall, Colin Powell or Condi Rice will succeed in putting a break on the more ambitious plans of the democratizing regime changers.

I don’t see how Marshall’s second point can be squared with his basic charge of deception. How can the administration sell the country on a policy that, by Marshall’s own account, the administration has not yet arrived at? Marshall seems to want neocon hawks within the administration to publicly and systematically promote a set of policies that the president has not yet — and may never — fully embrace. Obviously, that would be insubordination. To repeat: The suggestion that members of the administration ought to publicly commit the administration to a policy not yet adopted by the president is patently absurd.

Isn’t it enough that like-minded allies of the administration’s neocon democratizers have already trumpeted such plans publicly? Isn’t it enough that the president has gone to a think tank that houses advocates of such policies and announced his qualified support? Is the essential nature of the ongoing policy struggle within the administration in any way secret? As Marshall acknowledges, it is not. So what, exactly, is the problem? Where is the deception? I still don’t see it.

Marshall argues that there is little reason to hope that the most ambitious plans of the neocons will be moderated by the president, since after all, the neocons have won most of the administration’s internal battles up to now. But the truth is, we really don’t have a good indication of how far the administration will pursue democratization in the Middle East. The fact that the neocons have won so far on regime change in Iraq begs the question of democratization.

For one thing, it is by no means clear that even Paul Wolfowitz shares the same program as the most ambitious neocon democratizers outside of the administration. And from the reports I’ve seen, Secretary Rumsfeld is significantly less committed to the democratization project than Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. Marshall himself notes that Condoleeza Rice and Secretary Powell are probably democratization skeptics. So why, with all the potential division on this issue — even among the administration’s hawks — should we assume that the administration is bound to go with a maximalist policy of democratization and regime change?

I think the administration is going to cautiously experiment with democratization in Iraq, carefully monitor the results, and calibrate its future policies based on initial indicators. The policy battle will probably play out for years to come, with ebb and flow between the various camps. Is it “deceptive” for the administration to trap itself in a radical, long-term, and untested policy by publicly taking the maximalist position on democratization from the start? Seems to me that locking in a policy that way would be just plain stupid.

The truth is, the administration’s reluctance to publicly align itself with the maximalist position on democratization is a sign that it is acting with the precisely the sort of caution and prudence that Marshall claims to want. Marshall says that he wishes for wise and cautious policy, but he seems actually to wish for the administration to trap and embarrass itself by publicly advocating the most extreme and untested notions that it possibly can.

On the broader political point about the troubles of the Democratic party, I don’t believe that Marshall has quite caught my meaning. (That’s not really Marshall’s fault, since I didn’t spell this out quite fully enough in my earlier piece.) I’m not arguing that, “in the heart of even a seeming Joe Lieberman lurks a secret Ron Dellums.” There may indeed be some insincere hawks out there, but that is not my argument.

My claim is that the Sixties-inflected antiwar wing of the Democratic party makes the party untrustworthy on critical issues of war, peace, and national security. Even with the best of intentions, any Democratic hawk elected to the presidency is going to be subjected to tremendous pressures from within his own party to back down. The example of Tony Blair shows that it is possible to lead a party, or a country, in such a situation. But the British case also shows how perilous it is to be a hawk within a dovish party. After all, Tony Blair came very close to being ousted. A lesser man than Blair might have buckled under the pressure, and found an excuse to join the doves. And whatever he’d done, Blair might simply have lost and been replaced.

We’ve already seen that dovish pressures are a serious problem for hawkish candidates in the Democratic presidential primaries. Certainly, our victory in Iraq will strengthen the spine of Lieberman, Edwards, and Kerry. But you can be certain that the next time we face a regime about to get a hold of nuclear weapons, the Democrats will split again, and all of the pressures on moderate democratic hawks will reappear.

Marshall says he changed his mind on the war because of the president’s failure to bring round the French, the Germans, and the rest. Be that as it may, I can’t help but feel that any liberal, but pro-war, pundit is going to be constantly exposed to pressure from his antiwar constituency. I admire Marshall for his courageous willingness to stand for so long against the grain of much of his party. But any prominent hawkish Democrat, be he pundit or president, is going to be subjected to almost unbearable pressure from the Pelosi wing of the party. Until that changes, it’s going to be tough to trust a Democrat in the White House. (Granted, Lieberman would be the best of the lot.)

Josh Marshall says that, despite his change of mind on the war, he hasn’t really abandoned his views about the dangers of nuclear proliferation in a post-9/11 world. Maybe. But if Marshall hasn’t abandoned these views, they still seem not to have congealed into any sort of coherent policy vision — a problem that I think is general among Democrats.

In “Practice to Deceive,” Marshall argues that, contrary to the hopes of the hawks, American-sponsored democracy in Iraq might only strengthen the mullahs in Iran, by allowing them to wrap themselves in the mantle of nationalism. Instead of bringing the mullahs down quickly, democracy in Iraq might keep them in power “for years.”

I don’t believe that the mullahs are going to be in power for years in Iran. That’s because the mullahs are just a hair’s-breadth away from becoming a nuclear power. If our action in Iraq doesn’t do the trick in Iran, we will very likely have to move more aggressively to bring about regime change in Iran. The key determinant will be the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Other considerations, including democracy, will be secondary. Marshall knows the Iranians are enriching uranium, but he doesn’t seem to take real account of this fact in his playing out of scenarios for Iran’s future. That tells me that, although Marshall may say he still cares about proliferation in a post-9/11 environment, he hasn’t really integrated the proliferation issue into his understanding of the neocon’s plans.

Marshall says that, when it comes to foreign policy, 9/11 didn’t really change us very much. Neocons wanted regime change in Iraq before 9/11, and neoliberals had a different approach, then as now. I think this misses a lot. Prior to 9/11, I certainly would have been horrified by the notion of trying to forcibly democratize Iraq. I have plenty of doubts about it still. But I am at least willing to propose a systematic way to go about democratization, because I think the case for it in the post-9/11 environment is very strong. I believe that a whole lot of folks are in my position — including president Bush, who came into office opposed to nation building, but was transformed by 9/11. And by the way, let us honor those neocons who did have the foresight to argue for regime change in Iraq, even before 9/11. They were right.

I don’t want to be too negative about Josh Marshall, who I think is a very bright, knowledgeable, and fair-minded fellow, whatever our disagreements. But I do think there is a large problem for the Democrats here. I don’t think the Democrats have a well-thought-out foreign policy for the post-9/11 world. It isn’t just a question of the antiwar wing of the party versus relatively more hawkish moderates. Even the moderates, so far as I can tell, lack a systematic vision or policy. This tends to throw the Democrats back on strategies like stoking fears of neocon extremism. Moderate Democrats would help themselves much more if they based their criticism of the administration (and occasional praise, one would hope) on a systematic foreign policy vision appropriate to our new situation.

George W. Bush learned well from his father what a problem it can be to lack “the vision thing.” It’s now the Democrats who want for a foreign-policy worldview. Yet they — and we — have never needed one more.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.