November 10, 2007


Lieberman Delivers Major Address on "The Politics of National Security" (Senator Joe Lieberman, 11/08/07)

Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-CT) today addressed a Center for Politics and Foreign Relations/Financial Times breakfast at The Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The subject of Senator Lieberman’s talk was “The Politics of National Security,” in which he spoke about the future of the Democratic Party and its response to the threat of Iran.

“Thank you so much, Bob, for that kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here this morning at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

SAIS bears the name of a great American statesman and strategist. Paul Nitze served in six presidential administrations, from the outbreak of World War II through the twilight of the Cold War. As the principal author of NSC-68, he quite literally wrote the road map that guided America to victory in our long struggle against the Soviet Union.

Nitze is a figure of particular resonance for me, and his career provides an ideal starting place for the subject of my talk today—the politics of national security.

As many of you know, Paul Nitze was a Democrat, but he worked for Republican presidents as well as Democratic ones. He did so because he understood that, whatever domestic political differences divide us, they must never blind us to the far more profound national security challenges we face together from abroad.

Throughout his long career, Nitze put country before party, policy before politics. Although he was a Democrat, he did not look to the Democratic Party to tell him how or what to think about foreign policy.

The foreign policy convictions that animated Nitze, it so happened, were also the convictions that animated the Democratic Party from the 1940s through the early 1960s. Confronted by the totalitarian threats first of fascism and then of communism, Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy forged a foreign policy that was simultaneously principled, internationalist, and tough-minded.

This was the Democratic Party I grew up in—a party that was unafraid to make moral judgments about the world beyond our borders, to draw a clear line between what Nitze in NSC-68 called “the free world” of the West and the “slave society” behind the Iron Curtain. It was a party that grasped the inextricable link between the survival of freedom abroad and the survival of freedom at home—that recognized, as Nitze wrote, that “the idea of freedom is the most contagious idea in the world.” And it was also a party that understood that a progressive society must be ready and willing to use its military power in defense of its progressive ideals, in order to ensure that those progressive ideals survived.

This was the worldview captured by President Kennedy, when he pledged in his inaugural address that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

That Democratic foreign policy tradition—the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy—collapsed just a few years later, in the trauma of Vietnam. And in its place, a very different worldview took root in the Democratic Party.

Reflexively skeptical about America’s authority to make moral judgments about the rest of the world, inclined to see the planet’s leading problems as more often the result of American involvement than American disengagement, and viscerally opposed to the use of military force, this rival worldview was in many respects the polar opposite of the self-confident and idealistic internationalism that had, just a few years earlier, animated the Democratic Party under President Kennedy.

Nitze was among those who courageously fought against this turn in the Democratic Party. He was a critic of the anti-war, isolationist candidacy of George McGovern in 1972 and later broke with Jimmy Carter over his arms control policy, which Nitze felt was weak and misguided. With Eugene Rostow, Nitze reestablished the Committee on the Present Danger, to keep alive the principled, internationalist, and muscular foreign policy tradition that had once lay at the heart of the Democratic Party.

Throughout this period, although Nitze remained a Democrat, he did not hesitate to challenge Democrats with whom he disagreed, or to work with Republicans with whom he agreed. One of the Republicans that Nitze came to support, in fact, was Ronald Reagan, himself a former Democrat, who welcomed Nitze to his foreign policy team after winning the presidency in 1980.

Reagan was the last president Nitze would serve, but in the proud legacy he has left, Nitze offers us important lessons for our own time about the politics of national security.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., as a first-term Senator in January 1989, just as Paul Nitze was departing government to return to his office here at SAIS. As I began to make foreign policy decisions in the Senate, I found myself drawn to the Democratic tradition of my youth—the morally self-confident, internationalist, and muscular tradition of Truman and Kennedy, whose inaugural address had inspired me to be a Democrat in the first place.

By the late 1980s, that tradition had been out of fashion in Democratic circles for twenty years. But then, Democrats had also been out of power for most of those twenty years—something that struck me and many others as more than coincidental. Simply put, the American people didn’t trust Democrats to keep them safe, and the McGovernite legacy was a big reason why.

By 1989, historic changes were taking place in the world that made the strong, self-confident foreign policy that linked Democrats like Truman and Kennedy to Republicans like Reagan look increasingly justified. Although too many Democrats had grown accustomed to criticizing Reagan’s approach to the Cold War as simplistic and dangerous, now the Soviet Union was imploding—economically and ideologically.

The collapse of communism emboldened those of us who felt that the McGovernite legacy had been a disastrous detour for the Democratic Party, and that it was time to reclaim our own lost tradition of strength abroad.

Then in 1991, America’s stunning victory in the first Gulf War presented anti-war Democrats with graphic proof of why their reflexive opposition to the use of military force was substantively wrong and probably politically wrong too.

It was not until the Clinton-Gore administration, however, that a tectonic shift really began inside the Democratic Party about foreign policy. In particular in the Balkans, as President Clinton and his advisers slowly came to recognize that American intervention, and only American intervention, could stop Slobodan Milosevic—Democratic attitudes about the use of military power began to change.

Ironically, just as Democrats in the White House were growing more comfortable with the idea of an interventionist foreign policy, Republicans in Congress were moving in the opposite direction. In the absence of the Soviet Union, Republicans in the 1990s too often defined their own foreign policy vision as instinctive opposition to whatever President Clinton was doing in the world.

It is worth remembering, however, that some Republicans rose above this partisan reflex. Senator John McCain and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole courageously championed our intervention in the Balkans, without regard to domestic politics. But many others didn’t—and by the time of the 2000 presidential contest, it was the Democratic Party that was the more hawkish and internationalist, not the Republicans.

And in the 2000 campaign, it was Vice President Gore, who championed a values-based foreign policy, confident of America’s moral responsibilities in the world, and unafraid to use our military power. He promised $50 billion more in new defense spending than his Republican opponent—and, to the dismay of the party’s left, made sure that the Democratic Party’s platform that year endorsed a national missile defense.

Incidentally, he also chose a hawkish Democratic senator from Connecticut as his running mate.

Governor Bush, by contrast, campaigned for the presidency promising a “humble foreign policy,” criticizing the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. He signaled his intention to appoint as his secretary of state a retired general, who had counseled against military intervention both in Iraq and in Bosnia. One of his top foreign policy advisers warned that “America’s armed forces are not a global police force”—a line that another prominent Republican noted was “closer to the spirit of George McGovern than Ronald Reagan.”

In the politics of national security, it seemed, Democrats and Republicans had traded places.

Certainly no one listening to George W. Bush in the fall of 2000 could have imagined that, scarcely four years later, this same man would stand on the west front of the Capitol building and pledge, in his second inaugural address, that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.”

Indeed, as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, it is easy to imagine these words being spoken by Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton. But it was George W. Bush, who—in the aftermath of September 11—responded to the attacks with a national security strategy not of isolationism or realpolitik—but by drawing on the same morally self-confident, internationalist, and muscular foreign policy tradition he had once scorned.

In particular, President Bush defined the nature of this new conflict in quintessentially liberal terms—as a struggle for freedom against tyranny. Like the Cold War, he described the war on terror as ultimately “between two fundamentally different visions of humanity.” On the one side of this struggle are the Islamist extremists who “promise paradise, but deliver a life of public beheadings and repression of women and suicide bombings.” And on the other side, “are huge numbers of moderate men and women…” in the Muslim world, who believe that “every life has dignity and value that no power on Earth can take away.”

That is why, to defeat radical Islam, President Bush has repeatedly argued that we must simultaneously fight—and fight hard—to uproot their networks, while offering our own, more powerful vision of the future, based on the universal values of freedom and justice and opportunity.

In this regard, the Bush administration’s post-9/11 ideological conversion confronted Democrats with an awkward choice. Should we welcome the President’s foreign policy flip-flop? Or should Democrats match it with a flip-flop of our own?

Between 2002 and 2006, there was a battle within the Democratic Party over just how to answer this question—a battle I was part of.

I felt strongly that Democrats should embrace the basic framework that the President articulated for the war on terror as our own—because it was our own. It was our legacy from Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Clinton.

We could rightly criticize the Bush administration when it failed to live up to its own rhetoric, or when it bungled the execution of its policies. But I felt that we should not minimize the seriousness of the threat from Islamist extremism, or the fundamental rightness of the muscular, internationalist, and morally self-confident response that President Bush had chosen in response to it.

But that was not the choice most Democrats made. Instead, they flip-flopped.

It did not happen all at once. In the weeks and months after September 11, Democrats and Republicans put aside our partisan divisions and stood united as Americans. As late as October 2002, a Democratic-controlled Senate voted by a wide bipartisan margin to authorize President Bush to use military force against Saddam Hussein.

As the Iraq war became bogged down in a long and costly insurgency, however, and as President Bush’s approval ratings slipped, Democrats moved in a very different direction—first in the presidential campaign of 2004, where antiwar forces played a decisive role in the Democratic primaries. As you may recall, they also prevailed in Connecticut’s Democratic U.S. Senate primary last year.

Since retaking Congress in November 2006, the top foreign policy priority of the Democratic Party has not been to expand the size of our military for the war on terror or to strengthen our democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East or to prevail in Afghanistan. It has been to pull our troops out of Iraq, to abandon the democratically-elected government there, and to hand a defeat to President Bush.

Iraq has become the singular litmus test for Democratic candidates. No Democratic presidential primary candidate today speaks of America’s moral or strategic responsibility to stand with the Iraqi people against the totalitarian forces of radical Islam, or of the consequences of handing a victory in Iraq to al Qaeda and Iran. And if they did, their campaign would be as unsuccessful as mine was in 2006. Even as evidence has mounted that General Petraeus’ new counterinsurgency strategy is succeeding, Democrats have remained emotionally invested in a narrative of defeat and retreat in Iraq, reluctant to acknowledge the progress we are now achieving, or even that that progress has enabled us to begin drawing down our troops there.

Part of the explanation for this, I think, comes back to ideology. For all of our efforts in the 1990s to rehabilitate a strong Democratic foreign policy tradition, anti-war sentiment remains the dominant galvanizing force among a significant segment of the Democratic base.

But another reason for the Democratic flip-flop on foreign policy over the past few years is less substantive. For many Democrats, the guiding conviction in foreign policy isn’t pacifism or isolationism—it is distrust and disdain of Republicans in general, and President Bush in particular.

In this regard, the Democratic foreign policy worldview has become defined by the same reflexive, blind opposition to the President that defined Republicans in the 1990s – even when it means repudiating the very principles and policies that Democrats as a party have stood for, at our best and strongest.

To illustrate my point, I want to talk about a controversy in the current Democratic presidential primaries, in which I have played an unintended part.

I offered an amendment earlier this fall, together with Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, urging the Bush administration to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and impose economic sanctions on them.

The reason for our amendment was clear. In September, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified before Congress about the proxy war that Iran—and in particular, the IRGC and its Quds Force subsidiary—has been waging against our troops in Iraq. Specifically, General Petraeus told us that the IRGC Quds Force has been training, funding, equipping, arming, and in some cases directing Shiite extremists who are responsible for the murder of hundreds of American soldiers.

This charge had been corroborated by other sources, including the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the independent assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces led by General Jim Jones, as well as the on-the-ground reports of our division commanders in Iraq.

It was also consistent with nearly three decades of experience with the IRGC, which has been implicated in a range of terrorist attacks against the United States and our allies—long before the invasion of Iraq.

In light of this evidence, Senator Kyl and I thought that calling for the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization was a no brainer. Rather than punishing Iranians indiscriminately, it would apply a set of targeted economic sanctions against the part of the Iranian regime that was responsible for the murder of our troops in Iraq.

One big reason Kyl and I thought that calling for the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization would be politically uncontroversial was because a bipartisan group of 68 senators, including several of the Democratic presidential candidates, had already signed onto a piece of legislation introduced earlier in the year that asked for the IRGC’s designation along exactly the same lines as our amendment. Whatever the differences or disagreements on foreign policy or even on Iran, I assumed that tougher, targeted economic sanctions against the IRGC were something that we could all agree on.

I was wrong.

What happened instead is a case study in the distrust and partisan polarization that now poisons our body politic on even the most sensitive issues of national security.

First, several left-wing blogs seized upon the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, offering wild conspiracy theories about how it could be used to authorize the use of military force against Iran.

These were absurd arguments. The text of our amendment contained nothing—nothing—that could be construed as a green light for an attack on Iran. To claim that it did was an act of delusion or deception.

On the contrary, by calling for tougher sanctions on Iran, the intention of our amendment was to offer an alternative to war.

Nonetheless, the conspiracy theories started to spread. Although the Senate passed our amendment, 76-22, several Democrats, including some of the Democratic presidential candidates, soon began attacking it—and Senator Clinton, who voted for the amendment. In fact, some of the very same Democrats who had cosponsored the legislation in the spring, urging the designation of the IRGC, began denouncing our amendment for doing the exact same thing.

The problem with the Kyl-Lieberman amendment of course had little to do with its substance, and a lot to do with politics.

I asked some of my Senate colleagues who voted against our amendment: “Do you believe the evidence the military has given us about the IRGC sponsoring these attacks on our troops?” Yes, they invariably said.

“Don’t you support tougher economic sanctions against Iran?” I asked. Again, yes—no question.

So what’s the problem, I asked.

“It’s simple,” they said. “We don’t trust Bush. He’ll use this resolution as an excuse for war against Iran.”

I understand that President Bush is a divisive figure. I recognize the distrust that many Americans feel toward his administration. I recognize the anger and outrage that exists out there about the war in Iraq.

But there is something profoundly wrong—something that should trouble all of us—when we have elected Democratic officials who seem more worried about how the Bush administration might respond to Iran’s murder of our troops, than about the fact that Iran is murdering our troops.

There is likewise something profoundly wrong when we see candidates who are willing to pander to this politically paranoid, hyper-partisan sentiment in the Democratic base—even if it sends a message of weakness and division to the Iranian regime.

For me, this episode reinforces how far the Democratic Party of 2007 has strayed from the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and the Clinton-Gore administration.

That is why I call myself an Independent Democrat today. It is because my foreign policy convictions are the convictions that have traditionally animated the Democratic Party—but they exist in me today independent of the current Democratic Party, which has largely repudiated them.

I hope that Democrats will one day again rediscover and re-embrace these principles, which were at the heart of our party as recently as 2000. But regardless of when or if that happens, those convictions will continue to be mine. And I will continue to fight to advance them along with like-minded Democrats and like-minded Republicans.

Some of you in this room are students at the beginning of what will be long and distinguished careers in public policy and public service. Chances are, you already have formed some strong convictions about American foreign policy, and for that reason, identify more with one party than the other.

But as you consider your future, I ask you to reflect for a moment on the past, and the dramatic shifts that I have described in the foreign policy orthodoxy of Democrats and Republicans alike over the past sixty years.

These shifts are almost certain to continue to occur. Just as the foreign policy convictions of the Democratic Party of 2008 are very different from those of the Democratic Party of 2000, so too will the Democratic Party of 2016 and 2028 look very different from the Democratic Party of today.

I ask that as future practitioners of foreign policy, you do not become so wedded to a party that you are unwilling to diverge from it, when your convictions diverge from it. Let your views about national security determine your politics, rather than the other way around.

If you choose to identify as a Democrat or a Republican, in other words, I encourage each of you to be independent Democrats and independent Republicans.

It may mean that you belong to a smaller and, at times, lonelier caucus. You may even find yourself on the losing end of an election or two. But far more important, you will not lose your convictions about what you believe is best for the security of our great country—and that, as Paul Nitze understood, is what matters most.

Thank you so much.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 10, 2007 10:37 AM

Funny that Lieberman mentioned the 1991 Gulf War - almost all the Democrats voted against the force resolution (unlike 2002). That foolish vote killed more than one Senator's presidential aspirations, including the apotheosis of the type of Democrat that Lieberman venerates in his speech, Sam Nunn.

Joe is clear on these matters now, but he has tap-danced further left when it was necessary.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 10, 2007 3:06 PM

It comes down to the basic question: Is the United States of America a force for good in the world or a force for evil?

Senator Lieberman answers 'a force for good.'
Nor perfect, but good. His party foes answer the other.

Posted by: Mikey at November 11, 2007 1:51 PM

Note: Senator Lieberman did not say the Democrats are afraid of moral judgments - they're just afraid of stating them in public.

As an aside, what began to drive me from the Episcopal Church was a seminar I attended when I was senior warden. I learned my brother was evil because he was an army officer; I learned that I had not behaved as a Christian when I fought back against bullies in school.

The devil take them all

Posted by: Mikey at November 11, 2007 1:57 PM