Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


The Politics of Diplomacy

By Shawn Healy
There has been a great deal of rancor these past couple of weeks in the aftermath of President George W. Bush's speech to the Israeli parliament, where he alluded to the dangers of appeasement, referencing Hitler and Nazi Germany, and seemingly implicating presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama in the process. Obama fired back instantly, suggesting that we interact with friends and enemies alike in an effort to improve America's standing in the world and produce greater global stability. Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, his probable fall opponent, used this as a line of attack against his younger, and by implication, more naive challenger, considering it incredulous to engage with the likes of Ahmadinejad in Iran, Castro in Cuba, even Hamas in the disputed Palestian territories.

Yesterday, Independent Democratic Joseph Lieberman plunged into these raging waters in an op-ed piece that ran in the Wall Street Journal. He began by posing the following questions:

"How did the Democratic Party get here? How did the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy drift so far from the foreign policy and national security principles and policies that were at the core of its identity and its purpose?"

Lieberman, you might remember, was Vice President Al Gore's running mate in 2000, but was soon thereafter ostracized by his party as his hawkish foreign policy views were increasingly out of place in the Democratic Party he called home over the course of his distinguished political career. He lost in a Democratic primary challenge in his home state of Connecticut, eventually defeating his opponent in the general election by running as an Independent. In recent months, Lieberman has served as a loyal surrogate of McCain, campaigning furiously for the Arizona senator in select states, with a potential place atop the ticket looming on the horizon.

Back to the premise of this post. The larger question is this: Did Lieberman leave the Democratic Party, or did it abandon him? His argument begins with Franklin Roosevelt, who led the U.S. into WWII and handed the baton to his successor, Harry S. Truman, who presided over the war's ultimate conclusion, ending the two-theater conflict by using atomic bombs for the first and only time in history. Upon conclusion of the war, Truman oversaw the start to the half-century-long Cold War, which including U.S. participation in a "hot war" on the Korean Peninsula. After two terms of Republican rule under Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy assumed the reigns, a Cold Warrior in his own right. Kennedy made the initial deployments into Vietnam, a commitment that transcended the next two presidencies.

It was during the Vietnam War that Lieberman first saw shifts in his party's foreign policy positions. The battle for the 1968 Democratic nomination, which led to street fights in Chicago, and Sen. George McGovern's attainment of the party's presidential nomination four years later, signaled a stark dividing line between Republicans and Democrats, hawks to the right, doves to the left. Ronald Reagan's staunch stand against the Soviet Union and communism epitomized this shift, for "The Great Communicator" was once himself an FDR Democrat.

Lieberman argues that Bill Clinton and Al Gore returned the Democrats to the White House in 1992 on the backs of a "third way" foreign policy, a willingness to achieve peace through strength and use force when necessary to pursue the best interests of the U.S. The Connecticut senator suggests that he and Gore carried this same banner against Bush in 2000, with the Texas governor promising a more "humble" foreign policy. For better of for worse, this all changed with the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Bush pursued the "war on terror" aggressively, invading Afghanistan almost instantly, and Iraq 18 months later. After a brief period of national unity, Democrats began to question our involvement in each theater, but especially in Iraq. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, although he voted for both wars, contended that its prosecution was flawed.

By 2006, the Democrats took back control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, largely on the back of an unpopular war in Iraq, with promises to push Bush into immediate withdrawal. Their efforts have been stymied by Republican filibusters in the Senate and presidential vetoes, but all of the eight men and women who pursued the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 offered some version of a troop withdrawal shortly after inauguration. Hence the current debate.

It is here where Lieberman's criticism of Obama becomes pointed:

"Far too many Democratic leaders have kowtowed to these opinions rather than challenging them. That unfortunately includes Barack Obama, who, contrary to his rhetorical invocations of bipartisan change, has not been willing to stand up to his party's left wing on a single significant national security or international economic issue in this campaign.

In this, Sen. Obama stands in stark contrast to John McCain, who has shown the political courage throughout his career to do what he thinks is right – regardless of its popularity in his party or outside it.

John also understands something else that too many Democrats seem to have become confused about lately – the difference between America's friends and America's enemies.

There are of course times when it makes sense to engage in tough diplomacy with hostile governments. Yet what Mr. Obama has proposed is not selective engagement, but a blanket policy of meeting personally as president, without preconditions, in his first year in office, with the leaders of the most vicious, anti-American regimes on the planet."

Dave Anderson, Executive Director of the McCormick Freedom Museum, quarrels with some of the underlying premises of Lieberman's argument:

"...Don't you think his history is a bit simplistic or even revisionist? I've never understood that mainstream Democrats were apologists for the Soviets. And Clinton waited a long time before committing to a military solution and then it was only via air power and it wasn't clear we'd put troops on the ground. I never believed that Bush was ever going to be weak on the military (as implied, not stated) just because he campaigned for (fewer) foreign engagements (I believe largely to be counter to Clinton's engagement in the Balkans)."

Anderson is right to illustrate that the argument is not so black and white, and in this election season, we must separate fact from fiction as political alliances crystallize. He contends that Lieberman's article borders on "blatant politicking...for his buddy McCain," and in this regard he is probably on target.

That said, I think there is some substance beneath the partisan veneer. Prior to 2001, every major conflict in the past century was instigated by Democratic presidents (in addition to the narrative offered by Lieberman, Woodrow Wilson ushered the U.S. into WWI). The Republican Party was the bastion of isolationism, and even with the onset of the Reagan Revolution, the arms buildup was based on the premise that we could achieve peace through strength. The onset of the Bush Doctrine, a commitment to preemptive war in defense of democracy (otherwise known is neo-conservatism), represented a sea change of sorts, and McCain has proudly trumpeted this cause, positioning himself as a "happy warrior" who would "rather lose an election than a war."

Obama is apt to reference President Kennedy (I find strong similarities between the two), specifically his negotiations with then Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev. The Illinois senator may be engaging in a little revisionism of his own, however, at least according to this New York Times op-ed. The relatively untested Kennedy met with Khrushchev in 1961, and was deemed "too intelligent and too week." Shortly thereafter, the Soviets embarked on building the Berlin War, then installed offensive nuclear missiles in adjacent Cuba. As the U.S. teetered on the brink of nuclear war in the autumn of 1962, Kennedy's willingness to meet with enemies without conditions is certainly open to question.

As we stand on the cusp of the general election campaign in 2008, this will loom as one of the many definitive differences between Obama and McCain. Obama's ascension to the presidency would represent a dramatic shift in our nation's foreign policy orientation, and McCain, with the exception of subtle nuances like banning torture and combating global climate change, would largely be a continuation of Bush's policies. Experience is also likely to enter the fray, with Obama standing as a relative amateur, and McCain the tested veteran. Obama will attempt to shift the argument to his superior judgment, including his early opposition to the Iraq War. He will also try to make this election about the economy, for this is often a winning issue for the Democrats.

Regardless of who gains the upper hand in this debate, we are a nation at war. Our respect across the globe has certainly diminished in recent years, our status as the world's only superpower eroded. In the final five months leading up to Nov. 4, foreign policy discussions are certain to enter the fray, and Lieberman, McCain and Obama have made great contributions to the furtherance of this debate.


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

Powered by Blogger