The unraveling of Iraq over the past few weeks has re-energized the foreign policy fight within the Republican Party. It’s a battle waged on one side by proponents of restraint, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and on the other by the architects and advocates of the Iraq War, such as Dick Cheney, Sen. John McCain and Paul Bremer. Paul and Cheney both penned editorials for the Wall Street Journal, then made the rounds on the Sunday shows to defend their vastly different foreign policy philosophies. Their fight was public, passionate and personal. Paul wrote of those who supported the Iraq invasion, “They have been so wrong for so long. Why should we listen to them again?” Cheney dismissed Paul as “basically an isolationist.”
The intraparty feuding in the GOP, messy as it can be, is far preferable to what’s happening among Democrats. While the Republican Party is dealing with a civil war over foreign policy, the Democratic Party faces a silent coup.
After winning a rough-and-tumble primary in 2008 that largely centered on the Iraq War, Barack Obama rejected the military adventurism of his predecessor and sought instead a policy of caution and moderation on the world stage. Hillary Clinton, his likely successor, promotes a far more interventionist approach to the world. Her nomination would represent a significant change in the party’s foreign policy. (Need proof? Neoconservative Robert Kagan, who flayed Obama for his approach to the world in a much-discussed piece for the New Republic, said of Clinton, “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy.”)
And yet in the Democratic Party, there are no signs of an impending civil war over foreign policy. There aren’t even signs of an impending debate.
Consider the upcoming race for the presidential nomination. The majority of Democrats say they would like to see Clinton face a primary challenge. Thus far, however, potential challengers have little to say about foreign policy. In his widely read cover story for the New Republic, Noam Scheiber detailed the threat Sen. Elizabeth Warren poses to Hillary Clinton. The story focused entirely on economic populism – nary a mention of Warren’s foreign policy views. (For good reason: Warren wouldn’t give her first foreign policy speech until February 2014, four months after Scheiber’s story ran.)
More recently, Simon van Zuylen-Wood profiled Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is toying with the idea of challenging Clinton in 2016. “If Sanders runs,” van Zuylen-Wood argued, “he will do so as the candidate of the Democratic Party's uncompromising left flank.” The 5,500-word profile dug deep into Sanders’s views on economic inequality, but never once mentioned his views on America’s role in the world. The one possible candidate who has talked about the flaws of liberal interventionism is former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, whose recent comments about Eric Cantor pinging his “gaydar” make it unlikely he will ever be taken seriously as a challenger.
At a time when the mood of the country supports far less intervention, why aren’t Democrats raising the alarm about a liberal interventionist as the president’s heir apparent?
In part, it’s because of Obama’s “team of rivals” approach to governing. The president has overseen a foreign policy that reflects his own natural caution and restraint (the “don’t do stupid sh*t” doctrine, as he put it). But he has surrounded himself with people like Clinton, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and others who advocate for a far more interventionist approach to the world. While political journalists have chronicled the conflicts between Obama and the liberal interventionists in his administration, the major role Clinton played in the administration flattens some of their differences.
Political polarization also plays a role. Clinton has been the prohibitive frontrunner for well over a year now. Most Democrats would like to see Clinton as the nominee, and most also believe she will be the nominee. It’s one thing to have a primary challenger that nudges Clinton to the left on economic policy. It’s quite another to have a primary challenger shine a light on one of her central weaknesses. And make no mistake: Advocating for a more active foreign policy is a real weakness. Polls have repeatedly shown that Americans have little appetite for greater interventionism, something Clinton has pressed for repeatedly during her time in the Senate and her time at State.
Democrats are certainly free to rethink the party’s foreign policy stance. A more restrained foreign policy has served them well for nearly a decade now, but that doesn’t mean it always will. The key word, though, is “rethink.” Hash it out, debate it, have a knock-down, drag-out, full-on war over it. But don’t ignore it. A party can’t nominate a hawk without becoming a more hawkish party, and that’s a decision Democrats need to make with their eyes wide open.