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Democrats and Foreign Policy: What Will It Take to Overthrow the Foreign Policy Establishment?

The presidential election of 2020 could present a fundamental turning point in the way the United States conducts its foreign policy for the rest of the twenty-first century, and in a progressive direction. That, of course, is the optimistic view. Thanks to the continued dominance of the center-right club that comprises the Democratic Party’s international affairs brain trust, very little is likely to change, even in the event that Democrats move back into the White House in January 2021.

The irony, of course, is that in 2016 none other than Donald J. Trump showed Democrats that it was possible to run a national campaign without paying obeisance to the shibboleths of traditional U.S. foreign policy. Trump slammed globalization, condemned the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, called NATO “obsolete,” spoke of détente with Russia, and questioned the rationale for America’s support for allies as diverse as Japan and Saudi Arabia. To be sure, the ever erratic and bombastic real-estate tycoon also proposed that the United States bring back torture, “take the oil” in the Middle East, and kill not only ISIS and Al Qaeda terrorists but their families, too, and both during the campaign and as president he backed unprecedented levels of military spending. Still, Trump bulldozed decades’ worth of assumptions that underpinned U.S. foreign policy since 1945. Democrats watched, agape, and could only liberal and centrist world affairs gurus could not bring themselves to do any serious rethinking. As Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, points out in his fierce critique of America’s bipartisan consensus, The Hell of Good Intentions:

Ambitious foreign policy wannabes rarely question the desirability of U.S. primacy, the need for nuclear superiority, the necessity of NATO, the desirability of the “special relationship” with Israel, the need to protect access to Middle East oil and defend an array of Asian allies, and the inevitability of conflict with “rogue states” such as North Korea and Iran.[1]

If there is hope that the Democrats, and their crowded 2020 presidential field, will present a foreign policy vision that breaks with the past thirty years, it is because at least two of the leading candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, early on defined approaches to national security that broke significant new ground.

Widely criticized for his failure in 2016 to speak out on foreign policy, especially given that he was then running against a hawkish Hillary Clinton who had already seen her 2008 campaign crumble over her vote in favor of the war in Iraq, Sanders retooled his staff, began consultations with a wide range of progressive thinkers in areas from arms control to the Middle East, and delivered a series of well-  thought-out speeches on world affairs. He called for sharp cuts in defense spending, signed onto calls to end America’s “endless wars,”[2] centered the role of diplomacy and the United Nations in dealing with challenges abroad, and highlighted climate change, world poverty, inequality, and the troubling rise of the authoritarian right as crises that demand American attention. He called for the creation of a worldwide progressive alliance “to combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism.” And he added:

With the exception of immediate and dramatic crises, however, foreign policy is not something that usually gets a whole lot of attention or debate. In fact, some political analysts have suggested that by and large we have a one-party foreign policy, where the basic elements of our approach are not often debated or challenged.[3]

Like Sanders, Warren has also challenged many of the basic assumptions on U.S. foreign policy, laying out her perspective in the journal Foreign Affairs.[4] In it, Warren extended her critique of U.S. domestic inequality to the world abroad and called for reducing the influence of multinational corporations that, she charged, rig globalization. She called for ending the “endless wars” and for bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. And, like Sanders, she advocated prioritizing diplomacy and slashing the defense budget.

But getting beyond the “one-party foreign policy” is a tall order for the next president, Republican or Democratic—even should he or she be a left-leaning democratic socialist. As Trump learned, the so-called Deep State, the bureaucracy—at the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community—and  the dominant foreign policy elite, which is committed to the traditional view of the United States as a hegemon and to so-called “liberal internationalism” (often used interchangeably with “liberal interventionism”), is able to mobilize a formidable resistance. Many of the Democrats who would resist a new approach to foreign policy of the sort that Sanders outlined are now ensconced in a series of Washington think tanks, lobbying and consulting shops, and an array of task forces and other institutions, having honed their foreign pol- icy chops over the past thirty years. And they are not going to go without a fight.

“Ambitious foreign policy wannabes rarely question the desirability of U.S. primacy, the need for nuclear superiority, the necessity of NATO . . .

A scathing critique of liberal international- ism can be found in political scientist John J. Mearsheimer’s book, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, in which the author prefers the term “liberal hegemony” to describe what he sees as the governing philosophy of the nation’s foreign policy elite.[5] A conservative realist with few sympathies for the left, Mearsheimer’s trenchant polemic suggests instead what he calls a policy of “restraint” or what Walt, in his book, calls “offshore balancing.” On the left, of course, many others have penned important challenges to the foreign policy establishment’s bias for interventionism, including Cornell Law School professor Aziz Rana,[6] historian Stephen Wertheim,[7] the folks at the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for International Policy, and economist and public policy analyst Jeffrey Sachs, in his compact book A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism.[8] However, while there have been efforts to forge a coalition of sorts among left-wing thinkers and conservative realists, plus libertarians from outfits such as the Cato Institute, it is safe to say that when it comes to the foreign policy elite, they are all on the outside looking in.

The American Century, Revisited

If the Democrats who ran foreign policy during the Clinton administration, the Democrats-in- exile during the neoconservative-dominated George W. Bush era, and the party stalwarts who stepped in to manage foreign policy under Barack Obama have anything in common— aside from the fact that, to a large degree, they are the exact same people circling through the revolving door—it is their belief that democracy, freedom, free enterprise, and free-market-style capitalism are inseparable, and that the United States has the right and duty to use its military and economic muscle when and where it sees fit to preserve, consolidate, and extend that combination of American “values.”

Let us review the evolution of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment over the past thirty years.

. . . criticized for his failure in 2016 to speak out on foreign policy, . . ., Sanders . . . called for the creation of a worldwide progressive alliance “to combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism.”

At the end of the Cold War, it is fair to say that the United States had few enemies left. “The Pentagon was suffering from what I like to call ‘enemy deprivation syndrome’,” Chas Freeman, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me.[9] Or, as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell put it plaintively in 1991, “I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.”[10] Dangerously, however, the U.S.-led coalition’s victory in the 1991 Gulf War created shock waves inside the Democratic Party. Not only did many of the party’s leading voices oppose that war—only 10 of 56 Democratic senators and just 86 of 267 Democratic House members voted to authorize it[11]—but the war was trumpeted by leaders of George H. W. Bush’s team as having extirpated “Vietnam syndrome.” And for a party steeped in the antiwar movement that erupted during the Vietnam era and whose base (and many of its leaders) harbored deep suspicion of military adventures, the catharsis that followed the Gulf War challenged the Democrats’ instinct for restraint. As a result, a new wave of Democratic policymakers arose to confront what they believed was the party’s image as anti-military, antiwar, and weak.

. . .Warren . . . challenged many of the basic assumptions on U.S. foreign policy, . . . [and] called for reducing the influence of multinational corporations that . . . rig globalization.

Many of those who would serve as the Democratic Party’s elite over the next three decades would emerge from the post–Gulf War crucible determined not to allow the party to seem less tough than the Republicans in international affairs. And the New World Order that seemingly emerged with the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact emboldened them to undertake a policy of “engagement and enlargement.” Among them: Joseph Nye, one of the original architects of the idea of “smart power”; Kurt Campbell and Michele Flournoy, two leading Democratic foreign policy specialists who would later found the centrist Center for a New American Security; several future aides to President Obama and Vice President Biden, including Jim Steinberg, Tom Donilon (Obama’s national security adviser), Tony Blinken (deputy national security adviser under Obama), and Leon Panetta (later secretary of defense under Obama); numerous veterans of the national security establishment, including Madeleine Albright (first female U.S. secretary of state); and many others. In his 2012 book, The Obamians, journalist James Mann calls this group “the Trout Fishers,” so-called because of their participation in the prestigious Aspen Strategy Group. “The Trout Fishers represented the generation of Democrats who learned how to run foreign policy during the 1990s,” he writes. “They were eager to show that the Democrats were not a bunch of pacifists, that they understood national security issues and were willing to use American force when necessary.”[12] (Ironically, though, three Republicans would serve as secretary of defense under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: William Cohen, Robert Gates, and Chuck Hagel.)

Over the next eight years, the Clinton administration—though facing few if any real challenges to U.S. national security—managed to compile a record of unilateral and multilateral military actions, punishing economic sanction regimes, and vigorous expansion of America’s military reach. Through two wars in the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), a disastrous intervention in Somalia, three separate bomb and missile attacks against Iraq, a pair of missile strikes targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Sudan, enforcement of a no-fly zone in northeastern Iraq, and more, the United States made it clear that it would use force to assert itself around the world. After a brief “peace dividend,” as a result of which the U.S. military budget dropped by about a third, defense spending began climbing steadily in the second half of the Clinton administration.

And the Clinton administration coupled its tough-minded national security strategy—what Will Marshall, founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), an affiliate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), calls “muscular liberalism”[13]—with an aggressive effort to promote neoliberal economic policies worldwide, and not only through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and most-favored nation (1993) and permanent normal trade relations status (2000) for China. At embassies overseas, the American ambassador was tapped to put the promotion of U.S. corporate interests and trade at the top of their to-do lists, as State Department officials told me back then. During the Clinton years, the chief standard-bearer for this effort was Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown, who visited numerous countries (including BRICS nations Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) atop trade missions that included Fortune 500 CEOs, some of whom allegedly were included on the trips only after making substantial contributions to the Democratic Party. (A special counsel was appointed to investigate pay-to-play charges against Brown, but the inquiry was halted after Brown died in a plane crash in Yugoslavia.[14]). In Congress, supporters of the Democratic Leadership Council–Progressive Policy Institute (DLC- PPI) set up the New Democrat Coalition,[15] which pushed for neoliberal economic policy, including free trade, and which attracted Democratic members of Congress who consistently voted for increased defense spending. One of its leading members, the late Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), would serve as chair of the House National Democratic Committee (NDC), bolstering her reputation as one of the leading hawks in Congress. Tauscher befriended then Senator Hillary Clinton, acting as a key ally and, after 2009, serving under Clinton as a top State Department official.

Following the shock of the 1991 Gulf War, the second major event that rocked the Democrats on the world stage was 9/11. Amid a national outpouring of grief, rage, and calls for revenge—sentiments inflamed by President George W. Bush—few Democrats had the temerity or strength of character to challenge the White House. During the George W. Bush years, the Democrats floundered in opposition to an administration dominated by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and a contingent of neoconservatives led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith. A passel of Democratic presidential hopefuls, of course, voted in favor of the Iraq war authorization in 2002, including then Senators Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, and John Kerry.

At the end of the Cold War, . . .“The Pentagon was suffering from . . . ‘enemy deprivation syndrome’.”

Meanwhile, John Podesta, a key Democratic lobbyist who had served as Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, went about creating a series of institutions designed in part as places of refuge for Clinton administration veterans, including foreign policy experts. The first was the Center for American Progress (CAP), where Podesta was president and CEO, and the second, set up under Podesta’s guidance by former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, was called the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Both institutions, still currently active, would emerge as forceful advocates for the status quo in the national security arena. For a 2004 profile of CAP for The Nation, called “An Idea Factory for the Democrats,”[16] I spoke to the person who ran CAP’s foreign policy team, Bob Boorstin, who had served as Bill Clinton’s national security speechwriter in the 1990s. Referring to the party’s dove-to-hawk spectrum, Boorstin told me, “On the Howard Dean/Sam Nunn scale, we’re on the Sam Nunn end.” Boorstin would leave CAP, eventually to join the powerhouse lobbying/consulting firm the Albright Stonebridge Group,[17] led by the ubiquitous former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose website boasts that the firm has “230 experts” that “help develop business and risk management strategies in every part of the world,” with clients in “more than 120 countries.” Its “team” includes numerous former State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and White House officials, including Philip Gordon, Wendy Sherman, Kenneth Pollack, Victoria Nuland, and Christopher Hill. Of course, the Albright Stonebridge Group is only one of a panoply of similar private lobbying and consulting shops that serve as profitable refuges for former top U.S. government officials, including The Cohen Group (led by the former secretary of defense, William Cohen),[18] Kissinger Associates,[19] the Scowcroft Group,[20] the Chertoff Group[21] (“Enabling a More Secure World”), and many others.

Following . . . 9/11 . . . few Democrats had the temerity or strength of character to challenge the White House.

The networked web of DC think tanks, pol- icy shops, consulting groups, and law firms sprang into action in 2009 when President Obama sought to staff up his administration. What is striking about the presidential transition of 2008-2009—and an object lesson for the next Democratic president-elect—is the stark gap between the utter inexperience and naiveté of the inner circle that surrounded Obama in regard to foreign policy and the clamoring array of foreign policy experts who flooded the White House with resumes. Neither Obama himself, who had little or no real experience in world affairs, nor his immediate staff knew much about how the world works. A telling anecdote: Ben Rhodes, who emerged as a key voice on foreign policy in the Obama administration, eventually served as deputy national security adviser. He writes in his memoir The World As It Is that as Obama was assembling his campaign team, one of the candidate’s key Senate aides, Mark Lippert, speaking of the Obama team in Chicago, told Rhodes, “No one out there knows anything about foreign policy.”[22] Ironically, years later, for a New York Times profile,[23] Rhodes would coin the term “the Blob” to refer to the foreign policy establishment. David Samuels wrote, “According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.”

[One] [t]op Obama aide . . . observed,“What we’re trying to do is get America another fifty years as a leader.”

As president, of course, Obama chose Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Bob  Gates as secretary of defense, and General James Jones as national security adviser, all three of whom took up hawkish cudgels  as part of a highly conflicted but, ultimately, establishment-oriented foreign policy approach. While Obama gets credit for winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for negotiating the six-power deal with Iran over its nuclear program, for the most part there was little to like during the Obama years for critics of liberal hegemony. The 2009 “surge” in Afghanistan, the sharp escalation of the targeted killing program using Predator and Reaper drones, and the 2011 war in Libya (“We came, we saw, he died,” said Clinton, referring to Muammar Qaddafi’s horrific death, laughing[24]) dismayed many who had been taken in by the promise of change in 2008. The overt war in Libya, the covert war to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Obama’s support for Saudi carpet-bombing in Yemen led directly to civil wars, chaos, count- less civilian deaths, and a wave of refugees that destabilized Europe. Indeed, even in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Obama devoted lengthy passages to a frank defense of war.[25] Top Obama aides were frank, too, about the restorationist design of their approach to world affairs, after what they saw as the Bush administration’s too-unilateralist record. Speaking in the voice of a backer of liberal hegemony, Rhodes observed, “What we’re trying to do is get America another fifty years as a leader.” Reflecting the fact that the new generation of Democrats had broken free of the antiwar “Vietnam syndrome,” which had supposedly been expunged following the Gulf War, Rhodes also said, referring to Vietnam, “It’s not like this ghost in his [Obama’s] head.” Added Susan Rice, another top Obama foreign policy aide, “We just don’t have that Vietnam hangover.”[26]

In 2016, a hawkish Hillary Clinton ran for president as standard-bearer for the liberal hegemony alliance. In 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden, with a long track record as a supporter of liberal hegemony, the Balkans wars, the war in Iraq, NATO expansion, and more, could be the standard-bearer in the next presidential election. And if so, the hundreds of former Bill Clinton and Barack Obama veterans waiting in the wings stand ready and willing to serve. Take, for example, the recent creation of the group called National Security Action (NSA).[27] NSA (not to be confused with the spy agency) is led by Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan,[28] the latter a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton who many thought would have been tapped as her national security adviser.[29] On its website, NSA lists more than sixty foreign policy veterans, including Tom Donilon, Susan Rice, foreign policy analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Deputy National Security Adviser under Obama Dennis McDonough, and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and it claims to have assembled fully five hundred people ready to “provide Democratic candidates, lawmakers and policy organizations with a foreign policy tool kit—everything from talking points to legal and policy expertise to campaign surrogates.”[30]

. . . [T]he candidate who challenges Trump in 2020 will have to . . . [seek] out . . . voters . . . who believe that America shouldn’t be the world’s cop . . .

Would Vice President Joe Biden, or Senators Corey Booker, Kamala Harris, or Amy Klobuchar, Representative Beto O’Rourke, or Mayor Pete Buttigieg, choose their foreign pol- icy staff and Cabinet members from the “NSA 500”? The most likely answer is “yes,” because for advocates of something like the status quo ante, these are the usual suspects who will fill the scores of slots in the national security apparatus. Would Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders? Maybe, and maybe not, because finding enough progressives and advocates for new thinking, for restraint, for a humbler, non- interventionist foreign policy to run a new administration is hardly an easy task. The world affairs priesthood maintains a precious lock on experience in the world of foreign policy, and it is hard to become a member of the club, or to develop foreign policy chops, without acceding to the dominant, liberal internationalist world- view. To break free of the ruling paradigm, the candidate who challenges Trump in 2020 will have to build a political constituency for his or her point of view, and that means making foreign policy a prominent part of the election campaign itself, seeking out the antiwar voters, the MoveOn.org, Indivisible, and Our Revolution voters, who believe that America should not be the world’s cop, that only Congress can authorize military action, and the country’s leader need not go abroad to seek monsters to destroy.

Author Biography

Bob Dreyfuss, editor of TheDreyfussReport.com, is an independent, investigative journalist based in Cape May, New Jersey, and New York, specializing in politics and national security. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, and he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Holt/Metropolitan, 2005).


[1] Stephen M. Walt, The Hell of Good Intentions (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), 142-43.
[2] Bernie Sanders, “Elizabeth Warren and Several Other Democrats Endorseda Pledgeby Common Defense, An Anti-Trump Veterans Group, to End America’s ‘Endless Wars’,” available at https://theintercept.com/2019/03/04/common- defense-congress-forever-wars-pledge/.
[3] Bernie Sanders spoke on October 9, 2018, at the School of Advanced  International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, available at https://www.sanders.senate.gov/ newsroom/press-releases/sanders-speech-at-sais-building-a-global-democratic-movement-to-counter-authoritarianism.
[4] See https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/20 18-11-29/foreign-policy-all.
[5] John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
[6] See Aziz Rana, “Renewing Working Class Internationalism,” New Labor Forum, Winter (2019), available at https://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2019/01/25/working-class-internationalism/.
[7] See Stephen Wertheim, “A Clash Is Coming Over America’s Place in  the  World,”  The New York Times, February 26, 2019, avail-  able at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/26/ opinion/2020-foreign-policy.html.
[8] Jeffrey D. Sachs, A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
[9] Interview with Chas Freeman by the author. Freeman, a noted gadfly and critic of U.S. misadventures abroad, was named to lead the National Intelligence Council in Obama’s first term, but his nomination was torpedoed by the Israel lobby because of Freeman’s outspoken views about the Israel–Palestine conflict.
[10] For a more complete version of Gen. Powell’s comments, see http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19910409&s lug=1276426.
[11] As described in James Mann’s book, The Obamians (New York: Viking, 2012), 28-29.
[12] Ibid., The Obamians, 56-65.
[13] See https://theweek.com/articles/718464/when- centrist-democrats-account-foreign-policy-failures.
[14] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commerce_ Department_trade_mission_controversy.
[15] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Democrat_Coalition.
[16] See https://www.thenation.com/article/idea-factory-democrats/.
[17] See https://www.albrightstonebridge.com.
[18] Its principal is Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, available at  http://www.cohengroup.net
[19] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kissinger_ Associates.
[20] See https://www.scowcroft.com.
[21] See https://www.chertoffgroup.com
[22] Ben Rhodes, The World As It Is (New York: Random House, 2018), 10.
[23] See https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/ magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became- obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html.
[24] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlz3-OzcExI.
[25] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/ national/obama-legacy/nobel-peace-prize-oslo- 2009-speech.html. In The Obamians, Mann quotes extensively from Obama’s speech, including the president’s defense of humanitarian interventionism: “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds.” Says Mann, “The man who had just received the Nobel Peace Prize delivered a qualified defense of war.” (See Mann, The Obamians, 151-55.)
[26] Ibid., The Obamians, 72, 134, and 132.
[27] See https://nationalsecurityaction.org.
[28]  See, as an example of his thinking, Jake Sullivan’s 2019 piece in The Atlantic defending the notion of “American exceptionalism,” available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/yes-america-can-still-lead-the-world/576427/.
[29] For a fuller account of the National Security Action and its principals, see my article “Jake Sullivan, Ben Rhodes, and the Problem of ‘American Exceptionalism’,” available at https://thedreyfussreport.com/2019/02/27/jake-sullivan-ben-rhodes-and-the-problem-of-american-exceptionalism/.
[30] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/ democrats-marshal-a-strike-force-to-counter- trump-on-national-security-in-2018-2020-elections/2018/02/26/6b08540a-1b5b-11e8-b2d9-08e748f892c0_story.html? noredirect=on&utm_term=.112233b51395.

1 thought on “Democrats and Foreign Policy: What Will It Take to Overthrow the Foreign Policy Establishment?

  • “To break free of the ruling paradigm, the candidate who challenges Trump in 2020 will have to build a political constituency for his or her point of view, and that means making foreign policy a prominent part of the election campaign itself, seeking out the antiwar voters, the MoveOn.org, Indivisible, and Our Revolution voters, who believe that America should not be the world’s cop, that only Congress can authorize military action, and the country’s leader need not go abroad to seek monsters to destroy.”
    Thanks for sharing such ideas. I enjoyed reading!

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