At last week's Democratic National Convention, the Democratic leadership outlined its vision for American foreign policy and the war on terrorism. Despite the frequent references to alliance building, the common theme running through the most prominent Democratic speeches revealed a grand strategy based on retreating to Fortress America. The Democrats' goal is to make the United States into an international version of a gated community.
On the first night, Hillary Rodham Clinton offered the American people a security strategy that contained no call to deal with foreign threats at their source. Instead, she offered a strategy based on the idea of America as a community under siege.
"We need to fully equip and train our firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians -- our first responders in the event of a terrorist attack.
"We need to secure our borders and our ports, as well as our chemical and nuclear plants. We need to reorganize our federal government to meet the new threats of these times. We need to make sure that homeland security is properly funded and that resources go to areas at greatest risk. We need to take care of our men and women in uniform who risked their lives for our country. These brave Americans deserve better. We need to increase our troop strength, raise their pay, and provide veterans, the National Guard, and Reserve with the benefits they're entitled to."
She asked the people of the United States to believe that they can wall the problem of terrorism out, and repair damage from occasional breeches after the breeches occur. Like the decision to establish a gated community, this assumes that the problems in the shabby neighborhoods beyond the gates -- the neighborhoods where the most serious problems originate -- are not worthy of attention or resources.
Over the next two nights, the featured speakers focused on the quality of life inside the gates of Fortress America. Keynote speaker Barack Obama gave a moving description of how improving life inside of the American community depends on assuming a responsibility to help one another.
"If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child. If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother. If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties."
Vice-Presidential nominee John Edwards stayed on this message during his acceptance speech. He presented a rhetorical challenge to the audience stressing the importance of vigorously defending the rights of the individual.
"I have heard some discussions and debates about where, and in front of what audiences we should talk about race, equality, and civil rights. Well, I have an answer to that question. Everywhere."
Unlike Clinton, Obama and Edwards both acknowledged that a Democratic foreign policy might involve forays beyond the fortress walls. Obama said that, "We have real enemies in the world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued -- and they must be defeated"; Edwards said that, "We will always use our military might to keep the American people safe. And we will have one clear unmistakable message for al Qaida and the rest of these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you."
Perhaps the plan was to make the Presidential nominee appear strong by allowing him to be the one to articulate a plan for the war on terrorism beyond America's borders. If that was the plan, John Kerry failed to deliver. Like Clinton, Kerry talked of adding troops. He went further, acknowledging that he would use force in response to an attack, and saying that the elements of so-called "soft power" would be deployed outside of the fortress walls.
"I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response. I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security. And I will build a stronger American military.
"We will add 40,000 active duty troops -- not in Iraq, but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched, overextended, and under pressure. We will double our special forces to conduct anti-terrorist operations. We will provide our troops with the newest weapons and technology to save their lives -- and win the battle. And we will end the backdoor draft of National Guard and reservists."
"We will deploy every tool in our arsenal: our economic as well as our military might; our principles as well as our firepower... I know the reach of our power and I know the power of our ideals. We need to make America once again a beacon in the world... We need to be looked up to and not just feared. The future doesn't belong to fear; it belongs to freedom."
Given the importance that Senator Kerry assigned to exporting principle, his choice not to name any specific principle -- especially given his recent spate of interviews suggesting that his most cherished principle may be maintaining international stability at the expense of democracy -- is troubling. Would a Kerry administration act according to the principle that led him to conclude that Cuba's non-violent, pro-democracy Varela project "has gotten a lot of people in trouble, . . . and it brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counterproductive" (John Kerry, quoted in the June 6 Miami Herald)? Or will he act according to the principle that led him to conclude that the Castro government should "allow room for political opposition and accede to initiatives such as the Varela Project" (John Kerry, writing in the June 30 Miami Herald)?
The nominee's lack of clarity regarding pro-democratic and pro-freedom principles hobbles his party's theme of "two Americas." The noble ideal of one America is reduced to one America within two worlds -- worlds separate and unequal. Barack Obama stressed the importance of caring about "an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process," but a Kerry administration might not acknowledge that an Arab family broken up and tortured by a repressive government is a problem -- if that family lives outside of the United States. A Kerry administration may want to add a codicil to John Edwards' desire to talk of civil rights everywhere, noting that, outside of America, they will only talk of civil rights in places where it is convenient to do so.
In this vision of a world divided, the keepers of Fortress America regard meaningful democracy as an absolute necessity for themselves. They understand that their democracy is at the root of their prosperity. At the same time, they dismiss democracy as an unnecessary luxury for those living outside of the fortress, cutting the outsiders off from the prosperity that democracy provides. They believe that the individuals outside the fortress should be satisfied with mere stability -- and like it.
At their convention, without bogging their speeches down in abstract political theory, the Democrats could have clarified their principles by answering a simple question; was liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein a mistake or not? Not one of the convention's featured speakers -- the keynote speaker, the vice-Presidential nominee, or the Presidential nominee -- chose to address this issue in a direct manner. Perhaps they ignored the question because they have not yet answered it in their own minds. They truly believe that they have the luxury afforded those living behind the walls of a gated community -- the ability to ignore the perils of others without any repercussions to themselves. This is a very different Democratic party from the party that used to believe that we are all members of the same global village.