by Robert Lane Greene
With less than a week remaining before the Iowa caucuses, it's long past time to stop being coy and announce the recipient of one of the year's most sought-after political prizes: "The World"'s all-important Democratic primary endorsement. Not surprisingly, the criteria underlying the endorsement are strictly foreign policy-related. In particular, they reflect my belief that the best way to keep America secure going forward is to make sure America is once again admired and followed around the world, rather than hated and opposed. (This of course includes making successes of Afghanistan and Iraq, our two most pressing priorities.) That in mind, the nod goes to General Wesley Clark.
The case for Clark begins with a simple comparison of two moments in recent history. In the summer of 2002, some nine months after September 11, majorities in Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Brazil, Nigeria, South Korea, and Indonesia, to name a few countries, all held "favorable" views of America, according to a Pew Center survey. A year later support for America had fallen in nearly every single country for which the Pew Center provides data. The least bad news came from our firmest allies: favorable views of America fell from 75 percent to 70 percent in Britain, 72 percent to 63 percent in Canada, and 70 percent to 60 percent in Italy. Among our more skeptical allies, support tipped sharply negative: 63 percent to 43 percent in France, 61 percent to 36 percent in Russia, 53 percent to 46 percent in South Korea, 52 percent to 34 percent in Brazil. Favorable views positively vaporized in the Muslim world: from 61 percent to 15 percent in Indonesia, 30 percent to 15 percent in Turkey, and 25 percent to 1 percent in Jordan.
Defenders of the Bush administration point out that it isn't the president's job to please the French or Brazilians, but first and foremost to protect the United States. This is true as far as it goes, but it ignores one crucial insight: We are safer when fewer people hate us. Most obviously, there's the fact that fewer young Muslim men volunteer for suicide missions for the glory of killing a few Americans. But there's far more to it than that. Had we made fewer Turks hate us, the 4th Infantry division could have helped end the Iraq war even quicker and with less loss of life (American and Iraqi), rather than float uselessly in the Mediterranean. When Germany and France hate us less, their police kick down doors of suspected terrorists in Marseilles and Hamburg more enthusiastically. When Asians and other Europeans hate us less, they are more likely to donate to Iraq's reconstruction. And on and on.
True, the war in Iraq was going to anger those who oppose any American-led war under any circumstances. But the way the Bush administration prosecuted it angered many more still. Though the administration managed to infuriate the world repeatedly in its first several months in office, it got a blank slate after September 11--then proceeded, like a bankrupt man forgiven his debts, to go on yet another spree. Bush made clear he would topple Saddam Hussein under any circumstances, then chose belatedly to go to the United Nations and inflate the WMD threat. He tried to bludgeon rather than convince allies to join us. By the eve of war in March, America's poll ratings were even lower than the summer numbers cited above. George W. Bush had lost a p.r. battle to a murderous dictator.
So how do the various major Democratic candidates stack up against Bush on this front? Though all would be marked improvements, there are important differences among them. Howard Dean has certainly struck the right note in some speeches, but his policy proposals range from only vaguely useful ("involve the U.N.") to superficial ("hold a donors' conference"--it's been done already). John Edwards, an otherwise promising candidate, has spent a disappointingly small part of his campaign outlining a foreign policy agenda. Dick Gephardt stood by the president on Iraq, and braved unpopularity to vote for Bush's $87 billion reconstruction package. But as a politician whose policy interests are mostly domestic, he's also spent too little of his campaign articulating a foreign policy doctrine.
Joe Lieberman has staunchly supported the Iraq war, going so far as to propose sending more troops to win the peace if necessary. At the very least, he has distinguished himself with his agenda: Be less apologetic about using American power to further American ideals than the rest of the pack. But he has spent less time explaining how he would restore old alliances and craft new ones. Finally, John Kerry, son of a foreign service officer and an 18-year member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has spoken early, prominently, and often about the damage Bush has done to our global standing. In December, he hit just the right note: "Our diplomacy should have been as good as our soldiers. A true international coalition would have been better for our troops, better for our security, better for Iraq's future." Sadly, he has run an otherwise poor campaign that has failed to catch fire.
That leaves one candidate who has made restoring America's position in the world a major theme of his campaign. It's unsurprising that it's also the man who led an awkward, 19-nation NATO coalition against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. Clark is alone among the Democratic candidates in having had to negotiate with foreign leaders, both friends and enemies. He has spent much of his life abroad as a soldier (and Rhodes scholar), as compared with Bush, who had barely left the country before taking office. Clark understands that it matters what the world thinks of America, and has promised to act accordingly.
An easy, and patently false, charge against Clark is that he is a reflexive multilateralist and NATO fetishist who would not protect America without asking permission first. But nothing in his record suggests he'd feel the need to consult Luxembourg before dealing with an imminent threat. If anything, the opposite criticism of him, also widely made, is probably truer--that he is intensely hard to dissuade once he has made up his mind. (Witness his doggedness in urging NATO to go into Bosnia earlier, and to intervene in Kosovo.)
Clark's opposition to the Iraq war is easily caricatured as putting him in the "antiwar" camp. But, unlike Howard Dean, Clark openly expressed jubilation at the liberation of Iraq. And, as J. Peter Scoblic's endorsement of Clark shows, his positions on the war are both far more consistent and more sophisticated than he has been given credit for: Simply put, Clark's instinct is that some elective wars--which few can now doubt Iraq was--should be fought, but only with as much forethought, and as much international support, as possible. Going into Iraq may have been justifiable, but the Iraq war that George Bush fought did not meet those tests, particularly not at a time when the war on terror loomed as a higher priority.
Like all the candidates, Clark has made unwise proposals, some of which appear to pander to the Democratic base. For example, he has spoken of turning sovereignty over to Iraqis even before the Bush administration's July 1 deadline, which gives the impression he wants to cut and run from Iraq. But as both Bush and Clark know, a nominal transfer of sovereignty will primarily be for the sake of appearances, since more than one hundred thousand American troops will remain on the ground in Iraq for the foreseeable future. And while Clark plans to nod toward (and give some substance to) the internationalization of the reconstruction, his on-the-ground proposals show the good judgment of an experienced officer: leave an American in military command while allowing an allied non-American to head civilian reconstruction, consider adding more American troops, guard ammo dumps, seal the borders, change the force mix to adapt to guerrilla war.
But more than any specific policy proposals, Clark's decision to make restoring America's image and alliances a major theme of his campaign shows that he is acutely aware of one of the most important foreign policy problems facing the country, and that he has the right approach to fixing it. That's not the only thing Americans should look for in a president. But, after the damage this administration has done, it'd be a great start.
Robert Lane Greene is countries editor at Economist.com.