2008 will be the fourth presidential election year since
I turned eighteen. In the previous three, I registered
once as a Republican, twice as an Independent, and
voted once for a Democrat. Pragmatism matters more to me
than ideological consistency.
The American political system doesn’t always leave much
room for people who’d rather vote for policies than for parties.
Next November, however, I’ll likely side with the candidate
who best articulates a sensible international agenda.
There are five items on my foreign policy wish list, shaped
both by pride at having served alongside our nation’s flag in
Afghanistan and Iraq and by the reality of having buried too
many comrades beneath it.
First, and most important, we must restore the American
ideal in the world. Coercion is an inescapable part of
international politics, but force has never been America’s most
effective weapon. Our social ideals of liberty, equality, and
prosperity are stronger than any fleet or division. After 9/11,
nearly the whole world stood with the United States. Less than
six years later, I’m uncomfortably conscious of my accent while
walking down a London street. The United States can’t bully
the world into submission, but we mustn’t retreat into isolation,
either. We must lead, and restore the moral authority that
has been such a great source of strength in American history.
Second, I’ll vote for someone who makes explicit the threeway
relationship between energy, the environment, and national
security. These issues cannot remain the polarizing terrain
of the far left or the far right. Tie them together, and recognize
that energy dependence constricts our strategic options,
environmental change poses security challenges of enormous
magnitude, and we can either take the lead to shape our own
future, or surely be shaped by it. This is one of those rare issues
where fact and political expediency may actually converge.
Third, there’s one, and only one, threat that could change
life as we know it an hour from now: nuclear weapons. This
nation has squandered nearly two decades since the end of the
cold war without giving the real WMD out there the consideration
they demand. Despite the admirable efforts of groups
like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, loose nukes, trafficking
in fissile material, and the emergence of new nuclear states
continue to threaten the planet. But this is not an intractable
problem. In the words of Harvard professor Graham Allison,
nuclear terrorism is the ultimate preventable catastrophe:
without loose weapons and fissile material, there can be no
nuclear terrorism. So let’s get our act together and prevent it.
Fourth, Iraq. The war has passed through three distinct
phases: a fairly conventional fight to topple the Hussein regime,
a complex insurgency, and, now, an ethnic and sectarian
slugfest. American troops, deployed in sufficient numbers,
could have had a decent chance of affecting the outcome of the
first two phases, but that window of opportunity is slamming
shut. Our ground forces are stretched nearly to the breaking
point, and conventional U.S. troops will inevitably need to be
drawn down in Iraq before a stable society blooms. What that
means for the presidential contenders is this: the U.S. has enduring
interests in Iraq, and we cannot simply wish ourselves
back to February 2003. We must draw down while keeping sufficient
forces in the region to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven and
to prevent genocide in Iraq. Total withdrawal is irresponsible,
and so is talk of deadlines. As then Commandant of the Marine
Corps General P. X. Kelley testified before Congress during
the debate over pulling U.S. troops out of Lebanon in 1983,
“If the time is too short, our enemies will wait us out; if it is
too long, they will drive us out.” Ambiguity isn’t politically
comfortable, but it’s necessary here.
Finally, in restoring the American ideal and implementing
these tangible policies, we need good people to serve in government.
Our next president should call on all Americans, not only on political loyalists, to serve. There is a brain drain in our
best universities: many of the most gifted graduates are channeled
straight into private-sector jobs without even considering
public service. This isn’t because young people today are
unwilling to work for the common good; it’s because they’ve
never been asked. Civic engagement demands more than going
shopping, and sacrifice means more than giving up our
peace of mind while watching violence on the evening news.
The current crop of Democratic candidates comes reasonably
close to meeting the first four points on my wish list.
All recognize the need to repair the reputation of the United
States. All seem to grasp that the issues of energy, the environment,
and security are intertwined. Barack Obama, mentored
by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, has developed expertise
in the problem of securing loose nukes. Most of the
candidates, apart from Dennis Kucinich, recognize that withdrawal
from Iraq will be neither immediate nor complete.
But what I don’t, to my great disappointment, hear from
any of them is a call for Americans to serve their country.
Even Obama, who appears most willing to present grand visions,
has shied away from talk of sacrifice. Only Republican
John McCain has ventured significantly into such territory
in recent years. We need national leaders who will use
the bully pulpits of public life to inspire Americans to get involved.
If our policies are to reflect our ideals, then the military,
the Foreign Service, the intelligence community, and
all the other arms of our government must be diverse cross-sections
of American society. The ancient Greeks, after all, had
a word for those who shun the affairs of the state: idiotes.
We are at war, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
What we need from a Democrat at such a time is exactly
what we need from a Republican: wise, measured, and
inspiring leadership. Part of that involves appealing to our
idealism and issuing a genuine call to service. The Democrat
who does so will get a lot of votes—and maybe mine.
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